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For defined benefit pension plans, last week's roller coaster stock market is largely a non-event.
Most pension plans now are overfunded because of the multiyear surge in the value of equities.
In fact, a survey released last week by benefit consultant Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that at the end of 1996, pension plans sponsored by major industrial companies were on average 108% funded, while plans offered by large service companies were 113% funded.
Those healthy funding levels were before this year's surge, in which the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average-until last week's decline-had risen by more than 20%.
"Most pension plans have earned more than their funding assumptions," said Philip Schneider, director of Watson Wyatt Investment Consulting in Chicago.
"In my experience, defined benefit plans are much healthier mainly because of the long run-up in the stock market. Because they are long-term financial endeavors, pension plans can ride out storms quite well," added Raymond Sharpe, a principal and consulting actuary with Buck Consultants Inc. in Secaucus, N.J.
If the stock market falls again and the economy falters, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is in its best financial shape to handle any increase in terminations of underfunded pension plans by companies that fail.
The PBGC, funded by premiums paid by employers with defined benefit plans, had a surplus of $869 million in 1996 in its single-employer insurance program, a sharp turnaround from 1987, when it was laboring under a $1.5 billion deficit.