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CONSUMER PRICE INDEX Wednesday, Feb. 20, 8:30 a.m.

Consumer prices were probably unchanged in January, according to economists surveyed by MMS International, a division of McGraw-Hill Inc. If correct, the expected price performance in January would be the smallest change in the CPI since August, 1989, and would indicate that the recession is finally reining in price hikes. Consumer prices advanced 0.3% in December and increased 6.1% for all of 1990. Fuel costs likely fell last month, while the loss of crops in California during the December freeze will boost the prices of many foods. Economists also expect that the CPI, excluding the volatile food and energy components, rose about 0.2% in January, after a 0.4% gain in December. Nonfood, nonfuel inflation increased a rapid 5.2% last year.

HOUSING STARTS Wednesday, Feb. 20, 8:30 a.m.

The MMS consensus is that housing starts fell once again in January, to an annual rate of just 970,000. In December, starts dropped 12% to a pace of 987,000. That was the 10th decline in 11 months. New homebuilding is being decimated by increasing credit restrictions, a glut of new and existing homes already on the market, and the softness in home prices in certain regions, which is preventing some homeowners from moving up to more expensive housing.

FEDERAL BUDGET Friday, Feb. 22, 2 p.m.

The U. S. government will likely post a small deficit of $2.1 billion in January, according to the MMS economists. In January, 1990, the budget had an $8.2 billion surplus. But the Persian Gulf war and the recession are making added demands on Washington. In the first quarter of fiscal 1991, which began on Oct. 1, outlays increased 13.9% from a year earlier, while government receipts rose 10.7%. As the recession and war continue, the gap between spending and taxes will widen further. The Bush Administration has already projected a record $318.1 billion deficit for this year and a $280.9 billion gap for 1992.JAMES C. COOPER AND KATHLEEN MADIGAN

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