Currency Crisis Could Be Boon to Britain, Italy Meanwhile, US Recovery Remains Sluggish, and Japan Turns to a Public-Works Stimulus. WORLD ECONOMY

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THE world economic picture is still moving in slow motion. But the currency devaluations in Western Europe this month, and a public-works program in Japan, may speed up the projector.

"Finally, European countries have the opportunity to follow policies that will get them out of their high rates of unemployment," says Paul McCracken, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Nixon.

The United States economy, however, shows no signs of great vigor. "In the near term, it will be more of the same - dragging along, not going into a recession, but not going anywhere either," says Dr. McCracken, now a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

Last week, US government statistics showed orders for durable goods falling in August; personal income declining in the same month because of Hurricane Andrew; housing starts rising 10 percent in August; and real national output growing at a weak 1.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter. A survey by the Federal Reserve's 12 regional banks found economic activity slowly and unevenly improving.

"Fifteen months after its 1990 low, GDP {gross domestic product} has yet to exceed its pre-recession 1990 high," notes Leonard Lempert of Statistical Indicator Associates in North Egremont, Mass.

That was not the case after the four previous recessions.

A survey by Globescope Publications of Glen Carbon, Ill., earlier this month found economists marking down modestly their forecasts for growth in real national output this year for the US, Japan, Germany, Britain, Spain, and Brazil. They also became more pessimistic in their 1993 forecasts for these countries, France, and Italy.

By devaluing and floating their currencies in relation to the German mark, Britain and Italy are freer to stimulate their domestic economies. Britain, mired in the most prolonged economic downturn since the 1930s, has already cut its interest rates.

"The global economy stands a chance to benefit from the actions of those greedy foreign-exchange rate speculators," says Paul Kasriel, an economist with Northern Trust Company in Chicago.

With volume on the foreign-exchange markets grown to $1 trillion per day, it is becoming more difficult for central banks to maintain fixed exchange rates. If speculators and investors figure a currency should be devalued, they see the sale of that currency as a safe bet offering the potential for handsome profits. …