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Despite Huge Profits Big Oil Has Big Hole in Pension Funding

Although it recently posted record profits, Exxon Mobil has the most underfunded plan of any company in the S&P 500, Citi Investment Research says.

November 7, 2008
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While few corporate pensions have been immune to the dramatic downturn in the equity markets this year, it appears that plans at energy companies are in the worst shape.

According to a new analysis of S&P 500 companies from Citi Investment Research, companies in the energy sector had defined-benefit plans that were only slightly more than 80 percent funded at the beginning of this year—the lowest funding level among any of the 10 industries examined by Citi.

Given the major declines in the equity markets through the end of October, Citi calculates that funding levels have dropped off an additional 20 percent, at a minimum, which would leave energy companies’ pension funds hovering just above 60 percent funded.

“This could result in a need for energy firms to meaningfully contribute to their plans in 2009,” wrote Citi analyst Tobias Levkovich in a report released Thursday, November 6. “This would come at a time when earnings revisions for energy companies already are sliding sharply alongside plummeting oil prices … and could add another headwind for energy earnings and stock prices.”

Energy profits, according to forecasts from Citi’s economists, are projected to drop by 45 percent in 2009, compared with a 21 percent gain this year.

The report noted that a substantial chunk of the funding shortfall in the energy industry belonged to just a handful of companies. That included Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, which have been reporting huge profits but still had three of the 10 most underfunded pension plans in the S&P 500 at the beginning of this year.

Indeed, Exxon Mobil had the most underfunded plan of any company in the S&P 500, according to Citi. The energy giant had $27.8 billion in pension plan assets to cover $34.5 billion in pension liabilities, for a $6.7 billion deficit. ConocoPhillips, with a $1.6 billion shortfall, had the fifth-most underfunded plan, while Chevron’s $1.2 billion pension deficit was the eighth-largest of any company in the S&P 500.

Filed by Mark Bruno of Financial Week, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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