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WASHINGTON-The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. this week is expected to report a surplus for 1996 for its single-employer insurance fund, the first time the agency has operated in the black.

After hitting its low point in 1993, a $2.9 billion deficit-the difference between its assets and the benefits it has promised to participants in terminated underfunded plans it has taken over-the PBGC has rebounded. In 1994, the deficit declined to $1.2 billion and fell to $315 million in 1995.

The agency's turnaround is the result of several factors, including robust investment income on assets and the lack of terminations of big underfunded pension plans as companies have been able to put more money in their plans due to the strong economy.

The agency's future also looks good. Legislation passed by Congress in 1994 and now being phased in requires employers with underfunded plans to accelerate contributions to those plans. That will decrease the likelihood that a plan will be significantly underfunded if a company later runs into financial difficulty and the PBGC has to take over the plan.

At a minimum, the improvement in the PBGC's financial condition ensures that premiums employers with defined benefit plans pay the agency will remain stable. If the PBGC can maintain its surplus, employers may push for reduced premiums. The base premium is $19 annually per plan participant for fully funded plans, while premiums for underfunded plans are linked to the plans' funding levels.

The PBGC is expected to report its full financial results this week. The agency would not disclose details in advance.