''In recent board meetings of our members,'' said a top official of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), ''it has been the prime - if not the exclusive - topic of conversation.''
''It'' is the federal budget deficit and the reluctance of White House and Congress to do anything about it until after the 1984 election - ''an attitude, '' says Paul R. Huard, ''of 'ride it out until the election.' ''
''The problem,'' says Mr. Huard, NAM vice-president for taxation and fiscal policy, ''is the interrelationship of the deficit, interest rates, the exchange-rate imbalance, and a strong dollar.''
For United States exporters, said Huard, this combination adds up to ''the most difficult and intractable problem'' facing American manufacturers trying to compete in overseas markets.
The US dollar, says John Williamson of the Institute for International Economics, is overvalued by an average of 24 percent against foreign currencies, including those of such major US trading partners as Japan, West Germany, and France.
By Mr. Williamson's estimate, the dollar is overvalued by 16 percent against the yen, 24 percent against the franc, and 23 percent against the deutsche mark.
This depresses US exports in two ways: Many Japanese, West German, and French importers find it too expensive to buy the dollars with which to pay for American imports.
Second, exports from nations with undervalued currencies enjoy a price advantage in third markets, where their goods compete with those from the United States.
2 Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan insists that the marketplace sets the value of currency. The dollar, he notes, plays a ''safe haven'' role for investors in a troubled world, who reckon the US is the safest place for their money.
US manufacturers concede the existence of a safe-haven role. But they claim that a major force artificially ballooning the dollar's value is high US interest rates, which induce overseas speculators and money managers to seek a top return through dollar investments.
For American exporters, the fallout is loss of markets. For their workers, the fallout is loss of jobs - hundreds of thousands of them, experts say, across the spectrum of the US economy.
This year the US trade deficit will be well over $60 billion, far larger than the record 1982 shortfall of $42.9 billion. Americans, in other words, will spend $60 billion more this year to buy foreign goods than the US earns through exports.
''Turning the tide of this sea of red ink,'' says Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, ''will require a lower dollar.''
3 A lower dollar, in the NAM view, will come only when interest rates fall in response to a shrinking budget deficit - or at least to the market's perception that policies are being put in place which ultimately will curb the deficit.
Agreement is widespread, though not shared by the President, that an effective mix of policies to achieve that goal must include higher taxes, a cap on the growth of entitlement programs (notably social security and medicare), and some shrinkage of defense outlays.
A start has been made in slowing spending growth for social securty and medicare. Real progress, however, will require changes in the present link between benefit increases and the consumer price index (CPI).
''Not before the election,'' said Mr. Huard, ''are we going to be able to reduce the automatic indexation of benefits to the CPI.''
From one of his closest overseas allies, meanwhile - British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - President Reagan received a warning that US budget deficits must be reduced, or the global economy will suffer.
What troubles Mrs. Thatcher and other foreign leaders are high US interest rates. These impel central banks in other nations to raise their own rates to keep capital at home.
Meanwhile, private-sector borrowing shrinks, which in turn retards economic recovery.