Want to know what the next hit to corporate earnings in the U.S. could be? Take a look at the health of the nation's defined-benefit plans. Once a nice little plus on the balance sheet of practically every company that had one, most corporations today are seeing the value of the assets in their pension plans erode–if not plummet–as the stock market nears the end of its third straight year of losses. And that means companies will have to fork over cash to make up the difference.

How bad is it? Analysts have come up with some hair-raising estimates of the extent of the pension under-funding. Standard & Poor's Corp.'s survey of 624 big companies found a shortfall of $65.4 billion. UBS Warburg analysts calculate the shift to under-funded status from over-funded will have an adverse effect of 95 cents on the S&P 500′s earnings per share this year and another 40 cents in 2003.

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