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Pension Plans Underfunded, Says Survey

Survey shows only 37 percent of companies have fully-funded plans; little cash to plump them up. Plus: HealthSouth cans Scrushy, Ernst & Young. Also: Waksal's reported tax woes could put ImClone on the hook. And: US Air set to emerge from the hanger.
David M. Katz, | US
April 1, 2003

Listen -- it's that great sucking sound.

No, it's not the noise of jobs going south of the border. It's the gurgling of the amount of cash previously used to fund corporate pension plans.

Indeed, fully funding a corporate pension plan seems to have rapidly become passé among corporate managers. In fact, the percentage of employers with fully funded plans plummeted from 84 percent in 1998 to 37 percent in 2002. This, according to a new Watson Wyatt study.

That massive shortfall is likely to put a fair amount of hurt on available cash at companies that have pension shortfalls. "With almost two-thirds of pension plans falling short, we expect to see many companies struggling in the midst of a very bad economy to make massive cash contributions to improve their funding levels," said Kevin Wagner, a retirement practice director for Watson Wyatt.

A fully funded pension plan is one in which the market value of plan assets is enough to cover at least 100 percent of benefits accrued by employees up to the current date.

Things might even be worse than indicated by the survey, which looked at 419 companies reporting on 472 pension plans with 1,000 or more participants.

Last year's funding falloff would have been even greater if Congress had not passed the Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act of 2002, according to Watson consultants. That law boosted the maximum interest rate companies can use to determine the present value of benefits earned to date under the plan (the higher the interest rate is, the lower the present value of future benefits will be).

Further, the downward trend is likely to continue through 2003. "If interest rates remain low and the overall performance of the stock market remains weak, the percentage of companies with underfunded pension plans is likely to increase even further," Wagner said.

Many companies, however, are hearkening to the call. One key action more and more companies are taking to correct the problem; making pension contributions of more than the minimum funding levels required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Just 30 percent of companies studied were making the minimum contribution in 2002. Ten years ago, 57 percent were funding their plans at the ERISA minimum.

HealthSouth Dumps E&Y
On the same day that HealthSouth's board of directors was ousting Chairman and CEO Richard M. Scrushy, the company also canned its independent auditor, Ernst & Young.

Reportedly, the Big Four accounting firm is cooperating with a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of HealthSouth.

Company officials expect to replace E&Y quickly.

Meanwhile, the HealthSouth board declared the employment contract of Scrushy null and void. The SEC says Scrushy played a part in a scheme that helped HealthSouth overstate its earnings by at least $1.4 billion.

HealthSouth's two previous CFOS, William Owens and Weston Smith, have reportedly already pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the alleged fraud. This week, federal prosecutors are expected to get as many as five more guilty pleas from former HealthSouth finance employees, the Wall Street Journal reported. The finance staffers were reportedly part of a self-described "family" of HealthSouth accounting employees who allegedly conspired to cover up the company's earnings shortfalls.

Owens was the first executive to face criminal charges under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The act could also end up being used to shrink Scrushy's bank account.

If HealthSouth winds up restating revenues as a result of the alleged scheme -- and that looks real likely -- Scrushy would be required under Sarbox to forfeit any bonuses, incentive-based pay, and stock-based compensation. Or at least, that's the view of HealthSouth's acting chairman, Joel Gordon, who apparently wrote Scrushy a letter informing him of the possible hit to his wallet.

According to the letter, Scrushy would have to give up profits from the sale of company stock received for a year following the filing of the erroneous financial statements.

On the Wings of Cost Management
US Airways was expected yesterday to lift off -- tentatively -- from bankruptcy protection, according to Reuters. Having closed on $1 billion in private loans backed by a $900 million federal guarantee, the carrier is venturing forth into some real bumpy air.

A big part of the Arlington, Va.-based carrier's emergence from bankruptcy: the company's willingness to cut costs. Indeed, according to CFO PeerMetrix, US Airways has been improving its cost management a good deal better than American Airlines at lowering overhead. American, of course, has struggled of late to stave off bankruptcy.

Management at US Air reportedly predicts that it will save $1.9 billion a year through 2008. Cuts have come in worker wages and benefits and through renegotiated aircraft obligations and supplier contracts.

The airline now employs more about 30,000 people, slimmed down from 46,000 before September 11, 2001. It has reportedly cut the number of jets it operates to 280, down from 417. US Air flies 80 regional jets, but plans to add up to 320 more.

Still, the risks of war and terrorism make the world into which the carrier is emerging a treacherous one. Even before its expected emergence from Ch. 11, US Airways executives reportedly said the company would temporarily reduce flights by 4 percent, and defer 5 percent of wages for up to 18 months because of a whopping drop in bookings.

Waksal Woes
Even though he's no longer with the company, Samuel Waksal still seems to be causing plenty of trouble for ImClone.

On Monday, management at the cancer-care drug maker said it's postponing filing its fourth quarter and 2002 annual financial results, as well as the filing of its 10-K until April 15.

The date's significant. ImClone is holding back on its reporting because it will have to restate its 2001 and later financial statements (and maybe some statements covering earlier periods) because Waksal allegedly didn't pay $60 million in income taxes. The company's management said ImClone will take a charge against earnings of at least $23.3 million -- Waksal's tax liability exclusive of penalties and interest.

The restatement will reflect a potential withholding tax liability on the exercise of ImClone stock options and warrants issued to Waksal, its former president and CEO. The company charges that Waksal didn't pay New York state income taxes and maybe didn't pay federal income taxes on those stock grants.

Waksal has already agreed to pay $800,000 in an insider-trading case brought against him by the SEC, although he did not admit or deny the allegations against him in settling that case. Waksal has also pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including criminal ones, in connection with attempts to sell shares of company stock based on nonpublic information.

Under federal and state tax laws, employers must withhold taxes from the proceeds of an employee's exercise of certain kinds of options and warrants. Employers who don't withhold are liable for those taxes, plus interest and penalties, to the extent that the employee fails to pay them.

Both Waksal and ImClone could face criminal penalties if nonpayment of the tax was deliberately intentional, according to Reuters. The top penalty for state income tax evaders is $100,000 or five years in jail, or both, and federal penalties could be higher. The news service could not reach Waksal for comment on the story.

Short Takes
• Owens-Illinois named Thomas Young CFO, succeeding R. Scott Trumbull, whose retirement had been previously announced. Young had served as executive vice president and general counsel at the glass-container manufacturer since 1993.

• Larry Ohms, a former controller, secretary, treasurer, and vice president of finance of U.S. Lime & Minerals was sentenced to 32 months in federal prison for wire fraud and making a false statement to the SEC. In connection with an embezzlement scheme, Ohms also was hit with an additional three years of supervised release and was ordered by a U.S. district judge to pay over $2 million to the company. Ohms forged company officers' signatures on dozens of checks, according to the SEC's complaint. The commission also claims he falsified U.S. Lime's check register to make it seem that the amounts he personally received or paid his creditors with went to vendors of the company for legitimate business purposes.