The number of American businesses that failed last year declined 17 percent, reinforcing other signs of a healthy economy, according to a survey.

Research by Dun & Bradstreet Corp., released Wednesday, showed U.S. business failures dropped to 71,520 from 86,133 in 1993, continuing a decline from 1992's peak of 97,069."The reason you have fewer failures is because the overall climate of the economy is better," said Michael Moran, chief economist with Daiwa Securities America Inc. `Everything you look at on the economy points to that direction."

The decline in business failures complements broader indications of the economy's strength last year - including the creation of millions of jobs, a low unemployment rate and increased consumer spending.

In fact, the economy grew at a 4 percent annual rate last year, the fastest in a decade.

"One thing I'm sure you could say is that this fits in with the general tone and pattern of other stats on the health and performance of the economy in 1994," Moran said. "Anything else you look at would tell you we had a robust period last year."

But some economists said the report might also be suggesting fewer potential entrepreneurs decided to start new businesses, resulting in fewer failures and also indicating some slowdown in the economy.

"What's not clear is whether the number of start-ups slowed and therefore there were fewer opportunities for those people to fold," said Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board, a business research group.

The Dun & Bradstreet study found the dollar amount of liabilities associated with the failures dropped 38.5 percent to $29.3 billion, the lowest level since 1984. Liabilities peaked at $97 billion in 1991.

The driving force behind the improvements is a combination of readily available capital, strong demand for goods and services and excellent cash flow, said Joseph W. Duncan, vice president and corporate economist for Dun & Bradstreet.

"Current factors point to continued strong business performance," Duncan said. "However, it is possible that rising interest rates and inflationary pressures will initiate a dampening impact on U.S. businesses."

Higher interest rates would make it more costly for businesses to borrow money and erode their profits. It could also make it more difficult for some to repay their loans and force them into bankruptcy. Inflation would also raise prices for some products that businesses need.

Dun & Bradstreet monitors business failures by tallying companies that go into bankruptcy of one form or another, leaving behind losses and unpaid debts.

The statistic is regarded as a barometer of the business climate. In tough economic times, the number of business failures typically swells, putting pressure on surviving companies to bear heavier liabilities and suffer losses in their accounts receivable, or money owed to them.

Dun & Bradstreet said all major industry groups experienced declines in business failures last year. Manufacturing experienced the strongest results, reporting a 24.7 decline in failures to 4,643. Failures also dropped sharply in the Mountain states - 23.4 percent to 4,293.