Funding Fun House
CFO (01/03) Vol. 19, No. 1 p.65; McCafferty, Joseph

After three years of declining stock markets following the bull market of the 1990s, many large companies are finding they will have to contribute to their underfunded pension funds. Companies currently experiencing pension losses include Ford Motor Co., Honeywell, and AMR Corp., and experts note that because some companies have been unable to defer cash contributions for a year, the coming years will see many more large companies with deficits in their pension funds. A Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) report estimates that the Standard & Poor's 500 will report net pension expenses of $15 billion in 2003. Even though pension plans have been performing poorly for years, companies became over funded during the bull market, and are just now beginning to experience the effects of the poor stock market, experts note. Pension funding has long covered up pension losses and accounting rules that allow companies to overestimate their pension returns and delay their pension contributions. A Milliman USA study shows that 50 of the largest U.S. companies estimated they would experience about $54 billion of pension fund gains as profits in 2002, whereas they actually experienced pension losses of almost $36 billion. The average U.S. company uses an investment-return rate of 9.2 percent to calculate pension earnings, but some experts and lawmakers are beginning to see the advantages of using a more realistic investment-return rate. CSFB analyst David Zion points out that even the slightest alteration of a company's return rate can affect income statements by hundreds of millions of dollars, and proposes recording pension losses and gains at fair market value instead, forcing companies to declare their pension funding status on their balance sheets.

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