Whatever happened to the recovery?
Washington — Currently the US economy displays a kaleidoscope of contrasting signs and portents, which analysts view through a glass darkly.
No clear trend emerges from the latest batch of government statistics, except - in the view of some experts - that the long-awaited recovery has not yet begun.
On the plus side, consumer prices rose only 0.3 percent in August, for an annual rate so far this year of just above 5 percent.
Interest rates have dropped. The stock and bond markets, reacting both to the inflation and interest rate signals, have spurted erratically upward.
The economy grew at an estimated rate of 1.5 percent in the third quarter - July through September. That was lower than the 2.1 percent pace in the second quarter of 1982, reports the Commerce Department. Still, these increases followed steep declines of 5.1 percent in the first quarter and 5.3 percent in the last three months of 1981.
The second quarter upturn appears to conflict with the judgment of many economists that recovery has not begun. That quarter ended in June. However, later statistics - from the month of August - suggest that the economy is no longer performing up to the second quarter pace. Thus it would appear that the uptick which started in the second quarter carried over into July, but was not sustained in August.
''There are still crosscurrents in the economy,'' said Robert Ortner, chief economist at the Commerce Department. ''We don't have a strong clear rebound.''
Experts stress that the various positive signs - while welcome in themselves - appear to reflect weakness of the economy, not strength.
Sagging retail sales promote price-cutting, which reduces inflation. Companies mired in recession borrow less money. This nudges interest rates down.
Finally, August was a weaker month than July, to the disappointment of analysts, who had expected some uptick of growth from the 10 percent income tax cut of July 1 and the higher social security benefits which began at the same date.
The recovery, when it comes, will be slower than had been expected, said Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan Thursday. The administration probably will ''lower (its) sights'' on the pace of recovery from a recession that turned out to be ''much deeper than any forecaster had imagined it would go.''
The Treasury chief spoke after Martin Feldstein, President Reagan's nominee as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), told Congress that a ''sound recovery, (but) not an excessive one'' is what he would like to see. Too rapid a recovery, said Mr. Feldstein, would rekindle inflation.
He also derided the ''extreme rhetoric'' of supply-siders within the administration who had argued that large tax cuts would stimulate economic growth and pay for themselves through higher tax revenues.
Factory output, retail sales, the outlook for business spending, and other key indicators continue to sag, pushing farther into the future the time when the economy picks up steam.
Translated into human terms, this means that unemployment is likely to remain high, with some specialists predicting a nationwide jobless rate of 10 percent for September. August's rate was 9.8 percent.
Mortgage delinquencies and home foreclosures are running at the highest pace since the Great Depression of the 1930s, reports the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). About 1.5 million home loans - or 5.56 percent of the nation's 27 million mortgages - are in default by 30 days or more.
A record number of personal bankruptcies is ''overloading the courts,'' says Robert E. Gibson, president of the National Foundation for Consumer Credit. On the corporate side, failures currently surpass 500 a week, also the highest rate since 1932, according to Dun & Bradstreet.
Contributing to these sober statistics are the following economic developments, reported by various agencies of government:
* Retail sales edged down by 0.9 percent in August, says the Commerce Department.
* A Commerce Department report on capital spending estimates that American business - despite tax incentives granted in 1981 - will reduce investments in new plant and equipment by 4.4 percent compared to last year.
* Factory production dropped 0.5 percent in August, according to the Federal Reserve Board - the 11th time in the last 13 months that industrial production has fallen.