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Over the past three years, as companies watched equities markets crumble, their capitalizations shrivel and interest rates sink to the lowest level in 40 years, those offering defined-benefit plans to their employees had an extra worry: How much damage would be done to their bottom lines by increasingly underfunded pension plans?

No doubt, it would be substantial. In October, Credit Suisse First Boston estimated that of the 360 S&P 500 companies with defined-benefit plans, 320 would be underfunded for 2002, facing collectively a staggering yearend shortfall of $243 billion. As the year ended, the pain inflicted on specific companies became more apparent: General Motors Corp.’s 2002 pension contribution was $4.8 billion; IBM Corp. coughed up $3.95 billion, and Johnson & Johnson contributed $750 million, to name three.

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