It's still very early and there's a lot to sort out. But please note the equivocation in Zell's statement this morning that "in general, the existing benefits in the pension and cash balance plans are also unaffected by the filing." In general? You may recall that as part of Zell's plan to take Tribune private, the company changed its ownership structure to that of an employee-owned entity. "Its value and role long-term will be determined in the restructuring," he says. "We believe the structure is a valuable asset to the company and that there are strong reasons to preserve it.”
The Tribune employee stock-ownership plan holds 100 percent of the company's common equity. That could be bad news for folks in that plan. DealBook posts that "common stockholders are generally the first to take a loss in a bankruptcy restructuring, and they usually recover next to nothing."
Mr. Zell, by contrast, supplied mostly debt in the complex transaction, putting him higher in line to get paid. His $315 million investment in the Tribune deal consisted of a $225 million promissory note; the rest was for warrants to buy about 40 percent of Tribune’s stock in the future. “Because Zell’s outlay is primarily debt, Zell has greater protection in the event of a bankruptcy,” plaintiffs wrote in a lawsuit filed last fall over the buyout and its effects on employees.
Keep in mind that Tribune’s ESOP is so new - less than a year - that the potential loss for workers might not be that severe. Zell says that the "401(k) is unaffected by the filing, and in general, the existing benefits in the pension and cash balance plans are also unaffected by the filing."