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MERCHANDISE TRADE DEFICIT Tuesday, Nov. 19, 8:30 a.m.

The foreign trade deficit is expected to have narrowed slightly in September, to $6.2 billion, from $6.8 billion in August, according to economists surveyed by MMS International, a division of McGraw-Hill Inc. Exports, which have dropped in three of the past four months, probably rebounded in September. Imports, which fell 0.6% in August, are expected to be little changed. However, imports may have risen more strongly than projected. That's suggested by a sharp gain in customs-duty payments. That would mean the trade deficit widened in September, as it has through the summer months. In June, the deficit hit an eight-year low of $3.8 billion. But since then, export growth has slowed down, while imports, especially foreign cars and crude oil, have begun to pick up.

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

Housing starts probably remained at an annual rate of about 1 million in October, the same dismal pace reported in each of the past four months. The MMS expectation is suggested by the slight loss of total hours worked in the construction industry in October. The lack of vitality in homebuilding is a growing worry for the recovery. Despite almost a full percentage-point decline in mortgage rates since June, the housing industry may be slipping back into recession. That would hurt housing-related industries such as lumber, textiles, and appliances.

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

The MMS economists expect the federal government to report a deficit of $25.7 billion for October, the first month of fiscal 1992. That's an improvement from $31.3 billion in October, 1990. However, most economists expect the federal budget to sink some $350 billion into the red for the year, far surpassing the stunning $268.7 billion record posted just last year. Moreover, those projections exclude any election-year tax packages that could cause the deficit to soar closer to $400 billion.JAMES C. COOPER AND KATHLEEN MADIGAN

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