Lower dollar and interest rates help GNP perk up. But rate of growth still falls below White House projection

Fishing season has passed in most parts of the country. But since August, the Johnson Fishing Company, a Minnesota manufacturer, has been trolling around the country for retail orders. Much to the company's surprise, store owners are snapping up expensive electric motors used for sneaking up on bass.

``We thought all the auto incentives would have sucked up a lot of consumer dollars in an endless stream of monthly payments,'' says Paul Mulready, a company vice-president.

The White House has hoped the economy will respond to its own bait: a lower-valued dollar to help the trade deficit and lower interest rates to boost business and consumer spending.

Signs that the Oval Office fishing expedition got a few nibbles showed up Wednesday when the Commerce Department reported that the nation's gross national product (GNP), the total output of goods and services, rose 2.4 percent in the third quarter. This figure grew from 0.6 percent in the second quarter.

Sam Nakagama, an economist in New York, was cheered by the news. ``I think we're well on our way to a pretty good second-half rebound,'' he says. ``The fourth quarter will be fine.''

Another economist, however, says she believes the signs point to continued slow growth. Cynthia Latta of DRI, an economic forecasting service in Lexington, Mass., adds, ``There is no sign of a rebound.''

The rate of growth is still under the administration's second-half projection of 4 percent as measured by the GNP. This prompted an immediate attack from the Democrats. Noted Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, ``The GNP numbers confirm the economy, especially relating to middle America, has stalled. Jobs, agriculture, trade: These are the issues in the campaign.''

In reviewing the latest statistics, Beryl Sprinkel, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, said ``the economy is picking up,'' but he pointedly avoided making any forecasts. ``I don't want to,'' he added.

For the economy to grow at the administration's prediction for the year, Dr. Sprinkel figured that the fourth quarter GNP will have to grow 5.6 percent. But Sprinkel said there were too many uncertainties about the economy, especially relating to the trade account and inventory adjustments.

The Commerce Department numbers showed exports rose by 15.4 percent, a sharp turnaround from this past spring. Imports, however, also rose, by 20 percent. In total, the trade deficit rose another $10 billion in the third quarter compared with the second quarter. But Sprinkel said the administration saw evidence that imports to the United States from Japan and West Germany were slowing.

Other economists viewed this shift positively. ``The trade deficit is not smaller,'' said Irwin Kellner, chief economist at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, ``but it is not as big a drag on the economy.''

The Commerce Department figures also reflected the efforts of the automobile companies to cut back on inventories with low-cost financing. Now, Ms. Latta says, inventories are low at some companies, and she does not see any surge in production.

Sprinkel suggested the tax bill, signed by President Reagan on Wednesday, could be a short-term ``downer'' for certain industries that were counting on tax shelters for their funding. This would include commercial construction and some energy-related businesses.

Some other businesses are strong, especially those relating to consumer spending. Irwin Greenberg, president of Hess's Department Stores, a retailer in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, says sales are rising from 6 to 10 percent a month on a store-by-store basis.

``I think the consumer has a lot of credit,'' he reports. In an important shift, Mr. Greenberg says consumers are now buying more US-made goods such as sweaters and shirts. ``I think people have become more price sensitive,'' he states.

But sales increases in soft goods have been spotty. ``It's a very fickle business,'' says Mark Bozek of WilliWear, a New York-based fashion house, which expects only flat sales in the fourth quarter.

Housing remains a relatively strong part of the economy, even though housing starts have slowed. According to the third-quarter statistics, real residential investment rose at a 7.2 percent annual rate.

In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, for example, this growth has provided Shaw Lumber, a large lumber retailer, with a boost. Kenneth Boehmer, vice-president sales and operations, estimates sales are running at better than 10 percent over last year. ``We expect it to continue into the first quarter of next year,'' he reports. Some of the nation's heavy-duty businesses have also started to see sales pickup. Helped by export sales, chemical, rubber, paper, and drug companies have seen operating rates perk up.

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