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Economists look at '84 -- and smile; The outlook is pleasant: slower but steady growth, with some modest increase in inflation, consumer prices, and interest rates

Pessimists about the short-term economic outlook "are harder to find than a Cabbage Patch kid at the Christmas toy counter," quips J. Richard Zecher, chief economist at Chase Manhattan Bank.

The latest reports on economic growth and consumer prices reinforce economists' tempered optimism about the outlook for 1984. In the final three months of 1983 the economy will have grown 4.5 percent after adjustment for inflation, according to Commerce Department estimates. That is slower than in the previous two quarters and less than the 6 percent growth many economists expected.

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But the gross national product estimate (known as the GNP "flash"), which is subject to revision, is still strong enough that the nation's output appears to have grown 6.1 percent from the final quarter of 1982 to the final three months of '83. And because of technical factors, the fourth-quarter estimate "considerably understates" actual growth, says Albert T. Sommers, chief economist at the Conference Board, a business research organization.

Forecasters do not quibble with the Labor Department's latest inflation data, which show that consumer prices in November rose only a modest seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent and thus were up only 3.2 percent in the past 12 months.

At his news conference Tuesday night, President Reagan said that if Congress helps hold down spending, 1984 can have "continuing economic growth, unemployment coming down, and inflation staying under control."

Most forecasters generally agree with the basic outlines of the President's scenario, although they see some economic storm clouds on the horizon. For instance, GNP growth is expected to continue, but at a slower pace than in 1983. David D. Hale, chief economist at Kemper Financial Services Inc. in Chicago, expects GNP will grow 4.4 percent between the final quarter of 1983 and the final period in '84. That compares with his estimate of 6.5 percent growth for GNP between the final quarters of 1982 and '83.

One reason for the expected slowdown is that last month personal income rose only a moderate 0.7 percent, while personal spending rose at a seasonally adjusted 1.1 percent rate, as consumers cut back on their savings rate. Spending growth cannot be expected to outpace income increases for long, and thus a slowdown in consumer spending is likely.

And prices will begin to move upward at a faster clip in 1984, pinching consumers' pocketbooks, economists warn. Estimates of 5 to 7 percent annual increases in consumer prices "are in the ballpark," savs Ronald Utt, deputy chief economist at the US Chamber of Commerce.

The price rise is expected to put upward pressure on interest rates, forecasters add. Interest rates could dip up to 1 percent early in the year if the Federal Reserve speeds money growth in December and January, notes Glynnis Trainer, an assistant vice-president at New York's Citibank. But later in '84 the bank expects long-term interest rates to rise up to 1.4 percent and short-term rates to increase as much as 2 percent, as accelerating inflation alarms the financial markets.

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But Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan argues that yesterday's "good news" on the inflation rate, coupled with a report of slower GNP growth, means "interest rates should move down further."

Mr. Regan needled the Federal Reserve System by saying recent economic developments provide "an excellent opportunity for those in the money field to be more accommodative" in managing the money supply. "There is less need to lean against an inflationary wind that is probably not, in fact, blowing."

There are a number of reasons that consumers can look forward to fastermoving prices in the new year, economists say. These include normal cyclical patterns as well as pressure from wages, food costs, money-supply growth, and an expected decline in the value of the dollar.

Food costs are expected to accelerate as a result of this year's Midwest drought and corn and grain production cutbacks because of the government's payment-in-kind program. At the moment farmers are liquidating livestock to avoid higher grain costs, temporarily holding down meat prices. But when that ends, there will be smaller herds and higher meat prices, economists say. "I expect pretty substantial increases in food prices, with meat up 15 to 20 percent" in 1984, says Sam Nakagama of the economic consulting firm Nakagama & Wallace.

Rising wages could also exert modest upward pressure on inflation. In the first nine months of 1983 collective-bargaining settlements resulted in wage increases of only 1.7 percent under the first year of union contracts, according to a Chase Econometrics study. But "you won't have many pay cuts or freezes next year," adds Kemper economist Hale.

Finally, economists say an expected decline in the dollar's value on international currency markets in 1984 could raise prices both by increasing the cost of imported goods and by taking some price-trimming pressure off US manufacturers.

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