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US deficit is shrinking, for now

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Despite the ongoing costs of US military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the outlook for the federal budget has grown substantially brighter.

Tax revenues are rising much faster than spending, according to Treasury Department numbers released last week. The recent trend is strong enough that, were it to continue, the budget could move into surplus in barely a year, one economist calculates.

Already, the federal deficit is shrinking toward about half the size that it has averaged since 1970, when analyzed as a percentage of gross domestic product.

The shift reflects a strong economy, with higher incomes and corporate profits generating a bigger flow of tax revenue. In turn, the Treasury's progress could help the economy by buoying investor confidence in the nation's fiscal position.

Although it is a welcome change, the improvement does little to stave off the long-run challenges to the nation's financial health, many economists say. Baby boomers are starting to retire, placing new demands on government. Costs for healthcare programs like Medicare are still projected to rise faster than overall inflation.

"The picture is getting brighter," and if there's no recession over the next several years "there are going to continue to be some good strides made," says Mark McMullen, a senior economist at Moody's Economy.com in West Chester, Pa. But "it's unlikely that we're going to see a balanced budget anytime in the near or long term."

Some experts say the budget could achieve balance in the short run of the next few years. In unveiling its proposed budget this month, the Bush administration forecast black ink on the federal ledger in 2012. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in its recent annual outlook, also shows a surplus for that year.

A year ago, the CBO's forecast for the 2007 fiscal year called for a deficit of $270 billion. In the annual outlook released last month, the 2007 gap is projected at $172 billion.

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