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Regan vows best is yet to come, but Wall Street's wary

The worst is over, says Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan. The clouds of recession are clearing; blue patches of economic recovery are appearing overhead.

Many economists agree with Secretary Regan's forecast. But the brokers and bond dealers of Wall Street, still fearful of deficits, aren't necessarily putting away their umbrellas.

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The urbane Treasury secretary, himself a former head of Merrill Lynch, motored up to Capitol Hill Wednesday for the first post-State of the Union testimony by a high administration official. ''The economy is poised for recovery,'' he told the Joint Economic Committee.

Regan listed various portents of better times to come:

The Commerce Department index of leading economic indicators has gone up seven out of the last eight months, he pointed out. The housing industry is leaping back to life, with 45 percent more new homes started in the fourth quarter of 1982 than in the fourth quarter of '81. Business inventories declined sharply in the final quarter of last year, down 6 percent, and those empty shelves need to be filled.

Sales of household durable goods and clothing went up 11.5 percent in the final three months of '82, said Regan. Auto sales ''appear to be in the early stages of recovery,'' and total industrial production ''appears poised to turn upwards,'' the Secretaryclaimed.

The economy probably won't bounce back as strongly as it normally does after a recession, Regan said, due to persistent high interest rates, continued deterioration in the US balance of trade, and the need to keep monetary policy on an inflation-fighting course.

But he said the White House is now forecasting a 3 percent growth in gross national product (GNP) for 1983 - a rosier figure than administration budget planners had previously considered, and close to forecasts made by many private economists.

Dr. Ben Laden, chief economist of T. Rowe Price, is predicting 2.5 to 3 percent annual average GNP growth in 1983, for instance. The Eggert Economic Enterprises survey of 45 economists produced an average prediction of 2.5 percent '83 growth.

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For some on Wall Street, however, the question is whether the growth will last.

''If the consumer is ready to roll, that 3 percent growth figure is not out of line,'' says Monte Gordon, director of research for Dreyfuss Inc. ''But the [ financial] markets are concerned the recovery will be aborted again.''

Specifically, Mr. Gordon says, many on Wall Street still feel that the '83 and '84 deficits are going to be too big - driving up interest rates once again and choking off the recovery. And the deficit reduction plan announced by President Reagan in his State of the Union address doesn't help, Gordonsays.

''You'll still have $200 billion deficits in '83 and '84,'' he says.

''I don't think President Reagan addressed the qualms of (Wall) Street,'' agrees Larry Wachtel, a vice-president of Prudential-Bache. ''They want to hear about now,'' not 1985 and the deficit-closing effects of the proposed contingency tax, he adds.

Brokers, bankers, and bond dealers would have been more pleased if the President had modified the third year of the personal income tax cut; abandoned the indexation of tax brackets scheduled for 1985; and made deeper defense spending cuts, Mr. Wachtel says.

At least, says the Prudential vice-president, the administration's tendency to produce wildly optimistic economic forecasts has abated.

''Give them credit for realism,'' he says.

Not all players in the financial markets are so pessimistic about the President's efforts. Peter Peterson, former secretary of commerce, now chairman of Lehman Brothers, and coorganizer of the Bipartisan Budget Appeal, said Tuesday night on NBC that he felt the thrust of the White House program was in the right direction.

And even the pessimists have hope.

''The President did not say 'stay the course.' He tried to create a bipartisan atmosphere. There's a sense of movement toward compromise,'' says Monte Gordon.

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