Profits of General Motors Corp. plunged 88.1 percent from the 1979 first quarter to $155 million in the first three months this year, the nation's largest automaker said yesterday.

The earnings amounted to 52 cents a share of common stock compared with $4.39 a share in last years' first quarter, when a profits totaled $1.26 billion.

Worldwide revenue fell 12 percent to $15.7 billion in the latest quarter from $17.9 billion a year earlier. Vehicle sales to dealers dropped 18 percent to 2.03 million from 2.47 million in the 1979 period.

The chairman Thomas A. Murphy and President Elliott M. Estes said in a statement that profits were hurt by "continuing sales incentive campaign expenses, higher special tool amortization and (by) operating inefficiencies" resulting from production cutbacks.

Profits will continue to suffer "over the near term" because of inflation, economic uncertainty, high interest rates and high fuel prices, they said.

Taking into account the rate of inflation since 1967, the $155 million profit would represent a loss of $102 million (35 cent a share), Estes and Murphy said.

Gm didn't earn enough in the first quarter to cover its dividend of $1.15 a share.

The 88 percent decline was larger than the 86 percent drop in earnings from the first quarter of 1973 to the first quarter of 1974, when earnings per share dropped from $2.84 to 41 cents.

Gm is so large that profits of $155 million for a quarter represent a return on the stockholders' investment of only 0.8 percent, equivalent to about 3.3 percent a year.

Estes and Murphy said the company's profit margin on sales was only 1.0 percent compared with 7.0 percent in last years first quarter and 4.4 percent for the 1979 as a whole.

Speaking with reporters before the earnings announcement, Murphy said he expectes a sales recovery in the final quarter of the year. The auto industry still could match last year's sales of 10.6 million cars, including imports, he added.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's still a growth business," he told reporters.

GM was the second automaker to report results for the first quarter. Last week American Motors Corp. said it managed to earn $1.3 million, a drop of 96 percent from $32 million in the 1979 period.

Xerox Corp. yesterday reported an 8 percent gain in first-quarter profits on a 16 percent sales increase.

Net income was $148.4 million ($1.76 a share) on sales of $1.861 billion compared with $137.4 million ($1.63) a year ago on sales of $1.07 billions.

Chairman C. Peter McColough said the results for the quarter were about on target and that, "despite uncertainties," Xerox should have a profit gain for all of 1980.

First-quater profits of American Broadcasting Cos. Inc declined 4.5 percent despite a sharp increase in revenues, the company said yesterday.

ABC had net income of $24.3 million (86 cents a share) on revenues of $546.9 million in the first three months of the year compared with $25.4 million (91 cents) on revenues of $451.6 million in the first quarter of 1979.

ABC Chairman Leonard H. Goldenson said ABC's television network had record revenues in the quarter but suffered a decline in profits from increased programming costs, development of a late-night news program and costs associated with news coverage of developments in the Persian Gulf area.

ABC Publishing achieved higher profits with the help of Chilton Co., which was acquired in the second quarter of 1979, Goldenson said.