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Americans get some welcome news from inflation battlefront

Even a recession produces some good news, as evidenced by the latest developments on the inflation and interest-rate fronts. Interest rates are tumbling, heralding eventual relief for the beleaguered housing and auto industries, two major keys to the nation's economic health.

Inflation also is subsiding, although the October consumer price hike of 0.4 percent - 4.4 percent at an annual pace - is considered abnormally low by many experts.

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All this may not put a sparkle in the eye of millions of Americans who are unemployed or who may lose their jobs in the uncertain months ahead.

Many laid-off workers may face months of unemployment before the recession bottoms out and the economy begins a slow climb back toward solid growth.

Yet the recession itself - by cutting into consumer spending and reducing the appetite of businessmen for borrowed capital - paves the way for progress on inflation and interest rates.

As recently as last July the prime rate - the interest charged by banks to their preferred corporate customers - stood at 20.5 percent. Now Chase Manhattan , third largest bank in the United States, has dropped its prime to 15.75 and other leading banks stand at 16 percent.

A sharp drop in the price of homes, reflecting the depressed sales market, helped to haul down the October consumer price index (CPI) to a 0.4 percent climb from the 1.2 percent recorded in September.

Nonetheless, consumer prices shot up by 12.9 percent in the July-September quarter of the year - after more modest rises of 9.6 and 7.4 percent in the first two quarters - and analysts warn that inflationary pressures still bubble.

A hopeful sign, according to a panel of 10 labor experts, may be more moderate wage increases, and hence less inflationary labor costs, in 1982.

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The panel, in a forecast for the Conference Board, predicts first-year wage hikes in the 8 percent range, compared with 11.5 percent in the first nine months of 1981.

Labor costs - a prominent part of the nation's underlying inflation rate - tend to be passed on by employers to consumers in the form of higher retail prices.

Declining interest rates and lower inflation help to shrink government spending, both in the direct purchase of goods the government needs and in interest costs paid by the US Treasury for money borrowed to finance the national debt.

Social security payments also are affected, because on July 1 of each year more than 35 million beneficiaries get a cost-of-living increase indexed to the CPI.

Last July the increase was 14.3 percent, boosting total social security payments by $1.4 billion. A smaller increase next year, assuming the CPI shows less inflation, would give a smaller income hike to the elderly, but would reduce pressure on the financially strained system.

Housing costs - notably the price of homes and mortgage rates - play a disproportionately large role in the CPI as presently computed, experts agree.

When housing costs rise rapidly, as they have in recent years, the CPI tends to overstate the real inflation rate. Conversely, when housing prices sink, as they now are doing, the CPI tends to understate inflation.

Because the CPI governs benefit and wage payments to many millions of Americans, the Reagan administration is phasing in a revised consumer price index, designed to place housing costs in better perspective.

''To bring the housing industry out of its slump,'' says Michael Sumichrast, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, ''mortgage rates would need to come down to 13 or 13.5 percent.'' They now average 17 percent nationwide.

Pent-up demand for housing, experts say, means that a sustained drop in mortgage interest rates would do much to restore vigor to the home-building industry, on which the lumber, glass, steel, furniture, and other industries vitally depend.

The plight of the US auto industry, says Barry P. Bosworth of the Brookings Institution, is more complex, partly because labor costs of American carmakers are much higher than those of the Japanese, Detroit's top rival.

In addition, heavy financial losses are forcing General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler to scale back development and introduction of new models, aimed at countering the Japanese import flood.

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