Fitch on Wednesday assigned General Motors Co. a junk-level credit rating, the first assessment of the automaker's creditworthiness since it left bankruptcy protection last year, saying its pensions are heavily underfunded and the auto market remains uncertain.
Fitch's rating of "BB-" comes as the automaker is preparing for an initial public offering of stock, likely to come in mid-November.
Fitch said GM has come a long way since emerging from bankruptcy protection last year. Its Chapter 11 reorganization gave it more financial flexibility and it is likely to reap the benefits of an improving global auto market.
The company also has a strong cash position, a better cost structure and an increasingly competitive lineup of cars and trucks, Fitch said.
But auto sales remain sluggish for now, Fitch said, while GM's pension obligations remain underfunded by $27 billion as of last December.
In addition, a large portion of the automaker's senior management are new to the auto industry, including CEO Daniel Akerson. The former telecommunications industry executive took the helm of the company on Sept. 1 from Ed Whitacre.
"There may be missteps along the way as the management team essentially learns the industry while on the job," Fitch said in its report.
GM spokeswoman Renee Rashid-Merem declined to comment on the Fitch rating. She said it is common for companies that aren't publicly traded to get ratings from agencies because of debt they carry or the possibility they may issue new debt in the future.
GM disclosed in its initial public offering paperwork filed last month that it is negotiating with banks about a revolving line of credit to provide more liquidity. Rashid-Merem would not say if the company got the credit line.
Assessments from ratings firms such as Fitch are important for companies because they are a factor in determining how expensive it is to issue debt. Fitch considers a rating of "BB-" to be "speculative" with an "elevated vulnerability to default risk."