The good news is that in late June Congress passed, and the president signed into law, the Pension Relief Act, a measure designed to cut some slack for companies that have found themselves facing significantly increased underfunding in their traditional defined-benefit pension plans. The bad news is that the relief act doesn't solve the problem–it only delays it, and many companies will have to think long and hard about whether it makes more sense to seek relief or take the pain now.

The problem is clear. The market crash in 2008 and early 2009 hit pension plans hard, as did the fall in interest rates, leaving many sponsors of DB plans with big holes to fill. To some extent, the recent market rebound has helped; the total pension underfunding of S&P 500 companies fell from $308 billion at the start of 2009 to $261 billion at the beginning of 2010. But $261 billion is still a lot of red ink.

The Pension Relief Act gives companies the option of delaying the annual payment they're required to make to fill that hole. Under the so-called 2+7 plan, companies that opted for a seven-year schedule for eliminating their pension liability can elect to defer that repayment for two years, which need not be consecutive. Companies with calendar-year plans can choose either 2010, 2011 or, retroactively, 2009, and pay only interest in two of those years under the terms of the act.

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