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The gap between promised pensions and the money available to pay them in companies with underfunded plans soared to $53 billion in 1992, a shortfall that eventually could jeopardize the retirements of millions of Americans.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), the government agency that insures pensions, said that underfunded, single-employer retirement plans had $235 billion in benefit liabilities and just $182 billion in assets to pay for them - a deficit 40 percent above 1991's $38 billion.The PBGC said the underfunding is concentrated in a relatively small number of companies and industries. It said about 72 percent of the underfunding - $38 billion - is concentrated in plans sponsored by just 50 companies, primarily in the steel, automobile, tire and airline industries.

The underfunding gap - just $10 billion in 1983 - has widened steadily over the past decade and prompted demands for the overhaul of laws to protect private pensions.

"Until Congress acts, workers, retirees and taxpayers are going to be at greater risk every year," warned Rep. J.J. Pickle, D-Texas, chairman of a House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees private pensions.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., ranking Republican on the Senate Labor Committee in the last Congress, agreed.

"This whole pension area is going to be the most serious problem facing the nation," he said, noting that retirement expenses are growing because of lengthening life expectancies.

Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, chairman of the PBGC board of directors, said the report underlined the need for congressional enactment of Clinton administration proposals to strengthen pension funding.

"The fact that these numbers keep going up every year . . . suggests that it becomes even more timely to take action now," concurred David Certner of the American Association of Retired Persons.

But despite the rapid growth in underfunding and a $2.7 billion deficit at the end of 1992, PBGC executive director Martin Slate and others contended the agency faces no immediate problem.

"PBGC has ample assets to pay benefits for many years to come," Slate said, "but the data send a clear signal that we have a growing problem which we should squarely address while it is still manageable."

Most of the 65,000 single-employer pension plans insured by the PBGC are fully funded, the agency said. Fully funded have a large enough aggregate surplus that, overall, single-employer plans have more than $830 billion in assets to cover about $780 billion in benefit liabilities.

The PBGC said about 75 percent of the underfunding is in plans sponsored by financially healthy firms and does not necessarily present a risk. These include about 6.8 million participants.

But the remaining plans, which include about 1.2 million participants, are maintained by companies with below-investment-grade ratings. Their underfunding totals about $14 billion.

The PBGC attributed much of the underfunding growth to declining interest rates, which reduced pension plan earnings. But it said funding by many companies did not keep pace with growing liabilities because of weaknesses in the law.

The PBGC guarantees benefits up to $2,556.82 a month for participants in failed pension plans. Created by Congress in 1974, it is financed by business contributions.

In addition to the 32 million participants in single-employer plans, it insures 9 million other workers in multiemployer programs.