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Graphic: Orange Juice Futures

Just when corporate America's pension funds were starting to perk up, a sluggish stock market is knocking them down again. The pension plans of companies in the Standard & Poor's (MHP) 500-stock index will likely end 2004 with a 19% shortfall between their assets and obligations to retirees. That's even bigger than last year's 13% gap, says Credit Suisse First Boston (CSR) accounting analyst David Zion. Why? While investment returns have been flat, companies have withdrawn money to pay benefits. Meanwhile, obligations to future retirees continue to climb. The deterioration comes on the heels of a sharp improvement in 2003, thanks to a strong stock market.

Some companies may be forced to shore up their beleaguered plans with cash contributions in 2005. Among those Zion expects to divert a large percentage of operating cash flow to their plans: Goodyear Tire & Rubber (GT) and Navistar International (NAV). Navistar says the $220 million it put into its pension plan this year should suffice. Goodyear expects to contribute up to $350 million in 2005. The good news: If the interest rates used to discount -- or calculate -- the value of pension obligations continue to climb, the size of those obligations will fall. So pension funds could swing into the black. Bear Stearns (BSC) analysts project an aggregate surplus for the S&P 500 of 2% by 2006.

Safe or stylish? That's the conundrum top vineyards face when deciding between a traditional cork, which can taint wine, or a screwcap, which many consumers see as too tacky for a good bottle. Aluminum giant Alcoa (AA) offers a solution that could let vintners offer both: Vino-Lok is a glass stopper with a rubberized ring that, like a screwcap, prevents contamination or oxidation. But like a cork, it's elegant. Wineries can color or engrave the stopper with their logo. To open the bottle, you twist and pull out the stopper, much like a Champagne cork. You can also reinsert the stopper. Alcoa says Vino-Lok will appear on wine bottles early next year.

Q: I have been buying mortgage bonds from my broker. Most of these I buy in $100,000 denominations. What does my broker make in commissions on each of these? I'm guessing 1% to 2%. -- Eric Gerencser, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

A: Pretty good guess. A broker typically would mark up the securities 1% to 3%. If you want to know what the firm's take is, ask. If your broker won't tell you, try a discount brokerage. Instead of taking a percentage cut of a bond's face value, some charge a flat fee. Vanguard, for example, gets $50 per bond trade of any size. For $100,000 in mortgage bonds, Fidelity Investments would charge $500 for a round-trip (buy and sell) trade.

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