The government's chief economic forecasting gauge is predicting a prosperous new year while a separate report shows sales of existing homes selling at a record pace.

The Index of Leading Indicators rose 0.5 percent last month, the same as in October and the fourth consecutive increase, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.Three straight moves in any one direction are considered a good, but not foolproof, signal of economic activity six to nine months in advance.

Meanwhile, The National Association of Realtors said sales of previously owned homes jumped 2.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.21 million.

That broke the old monthly record of 4.15 million in November 1978. It was the seventh increase in sales in eight months. Every region except the West participated in the gain.

The economy is finishing 1993 strongly after a weak start. While economists anticipate some retrenchment in the first quarter, most expect a healthy growth overall next year.

"I'm looking for a pretty positive year in 1994," said economist Lawrence H. Meyer, a St. Louis-based consultant. "We expect to see a less erratic, more stable pattern."

The gross domestic product - the value of goods and services produced in the United States - advanced in the first quarter of 1993 at an anemic 0.8 percent annual rate.

It has improved in each quarter since and analysts think it will top 4 percent in the fourth quarter. They predict the growth rate will pull back to around 3 percent next quarter.

Low interest rates are fueling consumer buying of homes and durable goods such as autos and appliances and business purchases of computers and machinery.

Economists say that should continue next year, although they caution the defense industry will continue to shrink and a tax increase for upper-bracket consumers may dampen spending a bit.

In November, eight of the 11 forward-looking indicators contributed to the upturn in the leading index. In order of their impact, from largest to smallest, they were:

-A decline in applications for unemployment benefits to an average of 334,000 a week, from 356,000 in October.

-An increase in orders and contracts for new commercial buildings and business equipment.

-A rise in prices of raw materials, a sign of increased industrial demand.

-A gain in building permits.

-An increase in the inflation-adjusted backlog of orders at factories for durable goods.

-An advance in the average workweek of factory employees, from 4.16 hours to 41.7 hours.

-Growth in the inflation-adjusted money supply.

-An uptick in new orders for consumer goods.

Three indicators were negative. Starting with the worst, they were:

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-A slight decline in consumers' expectations as measured by the University of Michigan survey.

-A slowdown in business delivery times, a sign of diminished demand.

-A dip in stock prices as measured by the Standard & Poors 500.

The various changes left the index at a seasonally adjusted 99.6, up 1.4 percent from a year ago and 1.2 percent from three months ago.

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