The 'Crisis' in Pension Plans May Not Be a Crisis After All
Wall Street Journal (11/26/02) p.A1; Schultz, Ellen E.; Squeo, Anne Marie

Media reports about failing and underfunded pension plans coupled with recent corporate scandals have frightened many investors into seeking out more information about how pension plans affect companies' bottom lines. In general, the most heavily affected industries--steel, automobile manufacturers, and airlines--offer defined benefit plans, which were hit hardest by the stock market and interest rate decline, which reduced the plans' assets and increased their liabilities, respectively. Those companies in Standard & Poor's 500 index, which saw pension assets fall from $235 billion in 2000 to just $4 billion in 2001, will not exhaust their pension fund assets for about 12 years, and that is even if they do not infuse them with further funds. Moreover, firms' desire to inform investors in light of the recent corporate scandals has exacerbated the problem. Lockheed Martin Corp. informed investors that its pension plan would generate between $50 million and $100 million in costs rather than contribute $150 million to the bottom line like it did in 2001, which sent shares falling. However, investors should be more concerned with earnings rather than potential shortfalls in pension plans that do not often affect the bottom line; shares tumbled 4 percent for Lockheed despite quarterly earnings increases of 36 percent. Analysts contend that companies are using underfunded pension plans as an excuse to cut retiree health care and other benefits to reduce labor costs, and investors should beware that expected rate of returns calculated in the previous year could hurt company earnings indirectly if liabilities increase while pension returns continue to decline.

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