If you're still smiling to yourself over the performance of stocks last year, then you can be sure that somewhere, your company's pension manager is smiling, too.

Two reports this week announced some rare good news about the state of workers' pensions. A combination of three factors -- last year's stock market gains, rising interest rates, and increased contributions -- have put pensions on an improved footing.

One report, by Towers Perrin, said the assets in defined benefit pension plans sponsored by Fortune 100 companies exceed liabilities for the first time since 2000. Taken together, the pension plans at the 79 of the Fortune 100 companies that offer them are 102.4% funded as of the end of 2006. That's a $23 billion surplus.

These companies earned an estimated 12% return on their pension plan assets last year, driven by market gains. That's well above what they expected, an average around 8% according to disclosures in their financial statements.

In a second report, Watson Wyatt found a sharp decline in the number of major employers facing relatively high degrees of financial risk caused by their pensions' liabilities. They looked at Fortune 1000 companies that sponsored a pension in 2005. They credit a sound economy and increased employer contributions for the change.

While it's about time we got some good news about the health of the nation's pension, it's probably not a good idea to break out the champagne just yet.

Improved pension funding does indicate that if you're among the lucky few workers still in line to receive a pension after retirement, the odds of your benefit sticking around may have just gotten a little better.

It's no promise that your pension's here for keeps, unfortunately. As the Towers Perrin report pointed out, future payments for workers' post-retirement benefits (pensions, medical insurance, and life insurance included) add up to a major liability for many companies. Pension planning can also be a volatile business that many companies would just rather not deal with at all.

As a result, many businesses have been shedding their defined benefit pension plans. Only about 20% of workers can count on them, and the numbers keep dwindling. Some businesses have frozen their pensions or closed them to new employees, part of the broad trend away from these defined benefit plans and in favor of accounts like 401(k)s that put more responsibility and risk onto workers.

In this new retirement landscape, employees can no longer expect to be taken care of by their employers in old age. It's more important than ever that you make your own preparations for retirement. Look around and you'll find lots of opportunities to do so by using tax-advantaged accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s.

If you think you're probably in line for a pension, but you're not sure you can count on it, take a look at the Roth IRA. It's one of the most flexible retirement vehicles available. You'll pay tax on money you contribute to the account, but that's the end of your tax responsibilities as long as you follow all the rules.

Your contributions can be withdrawn at any time, and you're not required to take mandatory distributions like other retirement accounts. Find out more about IRAs of all stripes at the IRA Center.

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