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HOUSING STARTS Tuesday, May 19, 8:30 a.m.

Housing starts probably fell slightly, to an annual rate of 1.3 million in April from 1.36 million in March, says the consensus of economists surveyed by MMS International, a division of McGraw-Hill Inc. However, the drop may be even greater because most of the gain in March was in multi-unit construction, which jumped by 63%, to a 212,000 rate, despite the oversupply of such housing in most regions. If apartment starts fell back to a more sustainable level of about 150,000, total housing starts likely declined to an annual rate of 1.25 million in April. In addition, mortgage applications for home purchases were down in April, suggesting that home sales were weak for the month.

MERCHANDISE TRADE DEFICIT Wednesday, May 20, 8:30 a.m.

The foreign trade gap in March is expected to have widened to about $4.6 billion from February's surprisingly low $3.4 billion. Exports likely fell to $37 billion after jumping 6.8% in February to a record $37.8 billion. Much of the February jump came from aircraft shipments. Imports, down 0.4% in February, increased slightly, say MMS economists.

INITIAL UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS Thursday, May 21, 8:30 a.m.

New filings for state unemployment-insurance benefits may have dropped to an annual rate of about 405,000 for the week ended May 9. That would be down from the 415,000 filed in the week of Apr. 25. Claims have been falling since March, and another decline in early May would suggest an increase in job growth this month.

FEDERAL BUDGET Thursday, May 21, 2:15 p.m.

The U.S. government will probably post a surplus of about $25 billion for April, as an increase in income-tax payments due by Apr. 15 outpaced the continued rise in government outlays. However, the expected surplus would be the lowest April overflow in four years. In April, 1991, the federal budget was $30 billion in the black.JAMES C. COOPER AND KATHLEEN MADIGAN

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