The Week Ahead

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

New housing was probably started at an annual rate of just 900,000 in February, say economists surveyed by McGraw-Hill Inc.'s MMS International. If so, that would be a gain from January's dismal 850,000 pace, but it would be 38% below the number of houses started in February, 1990. Homebuilders ended January with a nine-year-high inventory of unsold new homes, so a turnaround in housing is unlikely anytime soon.

CONSUMER PRICE INDEX Tuesday, Mar. 19, 8:30 a.m.

Consumer prices likely increased a scant 0.2% in February, according to the MMS survey. Prices had risen by 0.4% in January. Fuel costs probably declined last month, as they did in January. Excluding food and energy, prices are expected to post a 0.3% advance, on top of a hefty 0.8% jump in January. Part of that gain, however, was probably the result of quirks in the government's seasonal factors. Slack demand and smaller wage gains indicate that inflation will improve as the year progresses.

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

The MMS economists are looking for a rise in the U. S. trade deficit to $7 billion in January, from $6.3 billion in December. A rise in customs-duty payments in January suggests an increase in imports, which had fallen in each of the previous two months. Exports, also down for two months in a row, probably increased as well in January, but not by as much as imports.

FEDERAL BUDGET Thursday, Mar. 21, 2 p.m.

The federal government will likely report a deficit of about $40 billion in February, larger than the $35.2 billion gap of last February. Outlays, up 12.7% in the first four months of fiscal 1991, which began in October, continue to outpace government receipts, which have risen by 8.6%. The cost of the gulf war may push spending even higher in February. This year's deficit continues to soar toward the $300 billion mark.

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