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WASHINGTON-With the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. reporting its first surplus ever, employer groups are calling on Congress to pass legislation to lower the insurance premiums employers with defined benefit plans pay the agency.

As expected, the PBGC last week reported an $869 million surplus in its single-employer insurance program for fiscal 1996. The program pays benefits to workers and retirees in underfunded corporate pension plans that the agency has taken over. Typically, the PBGC terminates underfunded pension plans and assumes their benefit obligations when companies are in such financial difficulty that they no longer can afford to make contributions to the plans or when companies go broke and are liquidated.

The PBGC's surplus was announced by President Clinton, the first time the nation's chief executive has reported on the agency's financial results.

President Clinton said the PBGC has made a "remarkable recovery." He noted that it was only a few years ago that the agency's financial future was so bleak that some people believed a federal bailout-along the lines that was implemented in the 1980s for the beleaguered savings and loan industry-was in the offing.

Indeed, in 1993, the PBGC touched bottom with a $2.9 billion deficit, the difference between assets and guaranteed benefits promised to participants in plans the agency has taken over.

Since then, though, the PBGC's financial condition has markedly improved with the deficit shrinking to $1.2 billion in 1994 and $315 million in 1995. That improvement is the result of several factors including the lack of any major underfunded terminations and robust investment income on assets the agency holds. In addition, legislation passed in 1994 has forced companies with underfunded plans to accelerate contributions to their pension programs.

In fact, the PBGC's financial condition has so improved that it sets the stage for premium reductions, according to the ERISA Industry Committee, a Washington-based benefits lobbying group.

"Lowering premiums would be an extraordinary way of reducing taxes and increasing the attractiveness of defined benefit plans," said ERISA Industry Committee President Mark Ugoretz.

But PBGC Deputy Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer Anthony Calhoun said action to reduce premiums is premature.

"The surplus follows a good economic period. PBGC needs to build a reserve that will be sufficient to protect the insurance during economic downturns," Mr. Calhoun said.

The current annual PBGC premium-paid by employers with fully funded defined benefit plans-is $19 per plan participant, up from $1 in 1974. Employers with underfunded plans pay a variable rate premium in which premiums are linked to their plans' funding levels.