US - Declining asset values and discount rates caused pension funds to lose some $445bn during 2008, Watson Wyatt has said.
Although investment returns were poor, caused by the difficult economic conditions, declines in corporate bond yields pushed scheme liabilities up by an average of $363bn.
As a result, scheme sponsors may be forced to make cash contributions their funds.
Watson Wyatt senior retirement consultant Alan Glickstein commented: "Changes in funded status are wreaking havoc with the projections companies have made.
"Large and unexpected pension contributions will require companies to divert funds they had earmarked for other business activities into their pension plans precisely when they can least afford it."
While schemes lost 24% over the year to October, the consultant said falling discount rates compounded these losses and led to an overall end of year loss of 32%. Average funding ratios fell from 106% in 2007 to 74% at the end of 2008.
In terms of funding distribution, Watson Wyatt said in 2007 almost half (46%) of schemes had a funding level of between 90% and 110%, with only 5% between 50% and 70%.
By the end of 2008, this situation had changed dramatically, with only 5% of scheme funded to a healthy level of 90-110%, and over half (61%) had fallen into the 50-70% bracket.
North American retirement practice leader Jim Shaddy added: "Plan sponsors are feeling the effects of a pension funding crisis with both asset values and interest rates dropping. We urge Congress to respond with the appropriate temporary relief for plan sponsors."
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