The Rouse Company, the real estate development firm which jointly developed and manages Columbia, Md., announced plans yesterday to begin construction on four new shopping centers this year and three in 1978. Four others already under construction are scheduled to open within the next 18 months.

Chariman James W. Rouse reported to shareholders at the annual meeting yesterday a 19 per cent increase in earnings in the first quarter for the firm's 26 retail centers.

Earnings before non-cash charges (depreciation and foreign exchange valuations) amounted to $2.6 million, up from $2.4 million for the same period last year.

Profits totaled $2.7 million compared to a $3.7 million loss for the same period last year.

In response to a stockholder's question about when the company would begin paying cash dividends, Rouse replied, "It would be unfair and irresponsible to say we'll pay dividends in a year.

"We'll declare a dividend when the cash flow exceeds working capital requirements," he said. Last year Rouse predicted that dividends would be paid within two years.

He said the following projects are scheduled to get underway in 1977: Augusta Mall in Georgia, Beachwood Place near Cleveland and two Clover Square mini-malls - one in Pennsylvania, and the other in New Jersey. Expansion plans were announced for Woodbridge Center in New Jersey, Salem Mall in Dayton, and Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston.

In 1978, construction will begin on Governor's Square in Tallahassee, Santa Monica Place in California and White Marsh in Baltimore County.

The company is liquidating its unprofitable investment subsidiary, Rouse Investing Company and its real estate investment trust, Rouse-Wates Inc. It has sold a half interest in some New Jersey office buildings for $1 million to The Mack company.

Another shareholder inquired about the company's responsibility in an alleged embezzlement of $195,000 by a Columbia Association employees.

(Rouse jointly owns the Howard Research and Development Corp., which controls the Columbia Association.)

Rouse replied they felt there had been no laxity on the part of management. "It was a clever deception. It's regrettable, but it occurs over and over again in business.