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Interest rate anxiety points to costlier cars and houses

A new car. A house of your own. To most Americans, stock market charts and the pronouncements of economists are not nearly as important indicators of better times as the ability to buy a new car, a new house, or both.

As most economists see it, the American economy is on the road to recovery after a two-year recession. Unemployment has dropped below 10 percent. The stock market, although not exactly rocketing upward at present, is still very much in a ''bull'' phase. And the highly abstract ''index of leading economic indicators'' forecasts continued economic growth.

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But for consumers of moderate means, the next few months may not be the best time to buy a new car or house. This is because interest rates have been moving upward. Thus the cost of financing such major purchases is climbing, and banks are tightening loan qualifications.

Over the next few months, Wall Street analysts predict, interest rates will continue to climb. Besides making it harder to purchase a new house or car, this will have the effect of flattening growth in the building and auto industries and, by extension, in the stock market.

But as these analysts see it, interest rates should ease by early 1984, the stock market will not actually retreat into a bearish phase, and the building and auto sectors, after a brief lull, will resume their recovery.

For some prospective house or auto purchasers, this period of higher interest rates may actually be a good thing. If one is willing to pay higher interest - and can qualify for a loan - then in the next few months demand for houses and autos may have slackened and prices may have dropped slightly, or there may be more room for tough bargaining with dealers. The same Wall Street specialists who predict a cooling off in these industries also see this as a healthy period, allowing the overall economic recovery to proceed steadily.

New car sales (foreign and domestic) were running at an annual rate of 9.7 million in July, up from only 7.4 million last year. American manufacturers sold 790,000 cars in July, compared with 625,000 a year before.

But because of climbing interest rates, some securities firms are recommending that auto stocks be deemphasized at present. Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. noted that although ''the outlook for earnings remains quite good'' in the industry, ''stock prices over the near term may not continue to be as buoyant as they have been, with overall performance likely to track more closely that of the general market.''

Alan Wapnick, a building analyst with the Dean Witter Reynolds securities firm, sees higher interest rates as a ''disaster'' for building stocks. ''But it's not all that negative. We'd been dealing with a very strong - possibly overheated - recovery in housing. In such a case, distortions in prices, labor, and materials could easily occur.''

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Housing starts in June ran at an annual rate of 1.75 million, nearly twice the level of a year earlier, and new house sales ran at 638,000, compared with 369,000 a year before. It is this sort of rapid expansion during a one-year period that can cause industry distortions, Mr. Wapnick says. (Although levels of 2 million starts per year have been reached in previous recoveries, Wapnick predicts that a probable ''top'' during this recovery will be 1.8 million and says this will not be achieved until mid-1984 or later.)

Most economists call the current period of higher interest rates - and consequent leveling of the securities market - a ''correction'' engineered by Federal Reserve policy. Senior economist Frank Mastrapasqua of Smith Barney told the Monitor that, while the correction may have been necessary, there is a danger of overdoing it. Already, he says, the housing industry has been ''significantly undercut.''

''With housing, we are seeing the first big victim,'' Mr. Mastrapasqua says. ''It is a sharp correction that prices 25 percent of home buyers out of the market.'' Other ''victims,'' he says, will be the auto industry and, because of a stronger dollar, US exports.

This economist says there have already been detectable oversupply problems in housing and autos. By increasing interest rates - and as a result, decreasing demand - oversupply may worsen. That can be seen as bad for these industries, but perhaps good for consumers who can afford to pay higher finance charges.

In the stock market in general, interest rates appear to be the critical factor at present. Mastrapasqua says the rates are the ''catalyst that alters the public's expectations relating to equity values.'' To him, the current bull market will recede somewhat in order to rebuild, as interest rates drop, in '84. He notes that at present the bond market is more attractive than the stock market, saying he detects ''no expectations'' among investors in equities.

Some of the more pessimistic analysts see the current increase in interest rates as a threat to the country's economic expansion. But few of these analysts foresee much more than a three- to six-month period of stagnation in the market. In the words of Larry Wachtel, a Prudential-Bache analyst, ''The fun and games'' that accompanied the first year of this upward phase are ''long gone.''

''The bull market began one year ago at a time of declining interest rates,'' Mr. Wachtel says. ''One year later, after the Dow has moved up 500 points, the bull is tired, and interest rates are climbing. These rates are a threat to expansion. This is not simply an academic exercise. It's going to cause higher finance charges on automobile and home loans.''

Still, analysts Wachtel, Mastrapasqua, and Wapnick concur that, after this lull, the construction and auto industries - and the stock and bond markets - should experience continued growth in '84.

As it was last week, the Dow Jones industrial average continued to decline. Analysts said this was because of investors' worries that interest rates will continue to increase. The Dow closed the week at 1,183.29 off 15.93 points from the week before and down 65.01 points since its record high of 1,248.30 on June 16.

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