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"We've all learned some powerful lessons here about ... hubris and humility." -- Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd after the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight and the SEC fined the company $400 million for doctoring earnings to inflate top execs' bonuses

What a difference a year can make. Thanks to rising interest rates, some $58 billion in company contributions, and an 11% return on investments, employer-sponsored U.S. pension plans are climbing out of their deficit ditch. An analysis by UBS Securities strategist David Bianco predicts plans are doing so well that the aggregate underfunding at S&P 500 companies will be nearly erased by yearend, assuming that interest rates remain near current levels and the S&P index gets to 1400. (It's currently about 1250.) Bianco says the shortfall may already be as low as $40 billion, a remarkable advance over last year's $145 billion (itself down from $202 billion in 2002).

IBM (IBM), General Motors (GM), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) are among those on the right path, with pension coffers gaining $1 billion-plus last year. So is copper miner Phelps Dodge (PD), whose plan is now 97% funded.

Not everyone's celebrating. Credit Suisse First Boston (CSR) analyst David Zion says almost 320 companies are still underfunded, 78 with assets that don't cover even 70% of what they are projected to have to pay out.

Struggling Ford Motor (F) is in particularly bad shape, with a nearly $11 billion deficit and a pension obligation more than six times its market cap.

Like Bill Clinton, Carly Fiorina has always had a way with audiences. And on May 18 in Washington, 15 months after being fired as CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), she was at it again. Addressing an eager crowd at BookExpo America, the annual publishing industry confab, she applied her trademark glamour and intelligence to the topic, "The Future of Publishing in the Digital Age." Fiorina was really there to create buzz for her memoir, Tough Choices,to be published by Penguin Group in October. She wrote it, she said, partly to "present a more authentic portrait of myself " than the caricature she saw in press coverage of her HP years. Seeming to take some credit for HP's current health, she also said that under her tenure, HP took the required risks and "is now a leader, not a laggard."

An excerpt of the book handed out at the show offers a glimpse of Fiorina's steely resolve even as a young executive. At AT&T (T) early in her career, she writes, a colleague arranged a business lunch at a strip club where women "would dress in completely see-through baby-doll negligees and dance on top of the tables while the patrons ate." Fiorina insisted on going, and the next day at the office, she writes, "the balance of power had shifted perceptibly. I had shown...that I would not be intimidated, even if I was terrified."

With gas prices above $3 a gallon and fears of more increases this summer, some employers are easing the pain at the pump.

Last month, GE Consumer Finance (GE) handed out $10 gas cards to all 350 employees of its Tempe (Ariz.) customer service center at an employee appreciation barbecue. This week, Methodist Hospital System, a Houston-based nonprofit health-care organization, gave $250 Chevron gas gift cards to some 10,000 employees, excluding physicians and senior executives. The program started after workers voiced worries about higher commuting costs in meetings and in e-mails to the CEO and CFO. To ensure that staffers get the full $250, Methodist actually spent $400 per employee to account for taxes, making its outlay almost $4 million. "We really value the quality of care we provide," says Dr. Marc Boom, executive vice-president of the largest of the system's three hospitals. "We want to be an ideal employer."

Are gas cards the next big perk? About 6% of employers responding to an informal poll by the National Association for Employee Recognition said they were offering them to employees as an incentive. But that figure could grow quickly, if one respondent's answer is any guide: "No, but that is a really good idea."

The average American mentions specific brands 56 times a week in conversation, says a continuing online survey by market researcher Keller Fay Group. Daily since April, the firm has been asking 100 different people, ages 13 to 69, to recall brands they refer to when talking to family, friends, and co-workers. Advertisers subscribing to the survey can use the results to determine a brand's "talk share" relative to its market share. The higher the talk share, the belief is, the more that market share will grow. Keller Fay co-founder Brad Fay says the firm initiated the study after noticing that "brands and companies are a major currency of conversation in America."

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NOTABLE POST

Over the last five years, five different teams have won Major League Baseball's October Classic.... [C]ompare this to the first 60 years of baseball in the 20th century.... The Yankees filled 29 of the first 120 possible slots. If we extend this to any team from New York City -- the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants -- these three teams played in the World Series 53 times. That's close to half!.... [C]ompetitive balance in baseball is clearly better than it used to be!"

Having recently discovered iTunes as a way to market themselves, dozens of colleges and universities, from tiny Regis College in Weston, Mass., to the University of California at Los Angeles, are making podcasts and videocasts of lectures, campus tours, and athlete interviews. The free podcasts are available from Apple's (AAPL) iTunes or, in a few cases, from an "iTunes U" Web site run by the school. (Most iTunes U sites are set up on college intranets under a no-fee deal with Apple to podcast classes to students. But Stanford and U.C. Berkeley have iTunes U sites available to the public.) "We're looking at capturing more courses on audio -- classes with general appeal," says Scott Stocker, Web communications director at Stanford, whose iTunes U site gets about 15,000 downloads weekly.

With colleges increasingly competing for students, schools "are looking for any way to get attention and be seen on the cutting edge," says Jeffrey Young of the Chronicle of Higher Education. "It's another mark of distinction."

Networking has always been part of summer in the Hamptons. But this season, the schmoozing at the posh Long Island beach community will be a bit more formal -- and corporate -- thanks to a marketing-and-PR duo who will be holding events at a "summer marketing house" to bring together company leaders, celebrities, media types, and just plain wealthy weekenders. If it's successful, the "cocktails and discussion" series, featuring corporate speakers, may lead to similar programs in Los Angeles, Vail, and Sundance.

This summer's series, dubbed the Hamptons Roundtable, is the brainchild of Joseph Anthony, who heads Vital Marketing, and Ronn Torossian, who runs 5W Public Relations, both based in New York. Anthony (whose clients include JLO by Jennifer Lopez) and Torossian (who represents Anthony's agency, among others) will host the series every other Saturday from June 10 to Labor Day at an East Hampton house they've rented. The idea is to invite 75 to 100 "tastemakers and influencers" in business, media, entertainment, and sports to discuss topics such as mass media's future and the success secrets of young millionaires. "This will give brands, companies, and celebrities access to each other," Torossian says, adding that friends and clients like MTV host Nick Cannon and New York Knicks guard/forward Jalen Rose will drop by to build buzz.

Top brass from Motorola (MOT) and Evian (a 5W client) have signed on to speak. Will eastern Long Island's upscale summer people welcome a marketing house in their midst? Anthony thinks they will, because the series is "social and selective" -- like most of the Hamptons.

Ask Deckers Outdoors (DECK) if it's easy being green. The Goleta (Calif.) company that makes Ugg boots and Teva sandals is pitching an environmentally friendly shoe line, the Green Toe. The footwear, such as the $55 Toe Foo sandal, is made from all-natural ingredients -- jute, cork, chemical-free rubber, and water-based glues. But that presents challenges.

Using only vegetable-based dyes limits the color assortment. And Deckers has to ship the shoes, made in China, in refrigerated containers to prevent the untreated rubber soles from melting. Chief Executive Angel Martinez says he hasn't heard any complaints about the shoes liquefying in hot weather, but notes: "I wouldn't keep them in your car on a summer day."

Marketing the Green Toe collection, which debuted last fall under the company's Simple Shoe line, is another challenge. Hardcore animal-rights activists reject anything made from leather, a material Deckers hasn't ruled out for future Green Toe shoes. And those factories in China can provoke the human rights crowd. At the same time, Deckers doesn't want the line viewed as hippie wear. It wants mainstream buyers, too. So its ads take a tongue-in-cheek approach. "Finally," reads one, "a shoe that vegans can eat."


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