The magnitude of last year's sell-off in the financial markets has set in motion normally slow-moving corporate pension plans. Plan sponsors are starting to reshape the way plan assets are allocated and making changes to other longstanding practices, such as securities lending, a recent survey shows. "When you've lost a lot of money, there's clearly an incentive to de-risk and ensure you have more stability," says Goran Hagegard, a principal at financial services consultancy Greenwich Associates.

Certainly that assessment is true of corporate pension plans. The average funded status of the plans operated by companies in the S&P 500 index slid to 78.1% at the end of 2008, from 104.4% at the end of 2007. As a group, the plans hit a record level of under-funding of $308 billion at year-end 2008, after having been over-funded to the tune of $63 billion in 2007, according to Standard & Poor's. Companies that reported big hits to their plans last year include Verizon, which saw pension assets plunge 30.7% to $51.8 billion, and Supervalu, whose pension assets fell 25.2% to $6.6 billion.

In the wake of the carnage, a Greenwich Associates survey found that almost 80% of corporate plan sponsors cut their allocation to U.S. equities last year and almost 20% described that reduction as "significant." Roughly the same percentages of the 97 companies surveyed said they had increased or significantly increased their holdings of fixed-income securities. A separate survey by Callan Associates showed the average allocation to domestic equity stood at 38.4% at the end of 2008, down from 50.5% in 2003, while the average allocation to domestic fixed-income stood at 36.7%, up from 32.3% in 2003.

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Susan Kelly

Susan Kelly is a business journalist who has written for Treasury & Risk, FierceCFO, Global Finance, Financial Week, Bridge News and The Bond Buyer.