James L. Pate, chief economist and treasurer of Pennzoil Co., last week received the first annual "Economic Forecasting Award" from Sterling National Bank and Trust Co. of New York. The award, which carries a $5,000 first-place prize, was presented in a ceremony at the Washington Hilton.

Pate, a Houston resident, was chosen from a group of more than 42 economists on the Eggert Blue Chip Indicators Panel, an economic newsletter group, for most accurately predicting the real gross national product (GNP) and inflation (GNP Deflator) for the last three years, from 1978 through 1980.

"In Oct. 1977, I predicted that real growth in '78 would be 4.7 percent. It was 4.8 percent," Pate said recently. "For '79, I said 3.1 percent, and real growth equalled 3.2 percent. For '80, my prediction was 0.2 percent, but actually, real growth declined by that amount.

"For inflation in '78, as measured by the implicit price deflator the broadest measure of inflation , I said 6.2 percent," Pate continued. "That year inflation was 8.5 percent. For '79, my prediction was 7.4 percent, and for last year I said 8.6 percent." Inflation in 1979 was gauged by the Labor Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis at 8.5 percent, and for 1980 it reached 9.0 percent.

"It is quite clear that I underestimated to some extent the degree of inflation, but apparently I did better than most," Pate laughed.

The competition and award was conceived by Theodore H. Silbert, chairman of the board at Sterling. He approached Columbia University with his award program in 1977.

"The first winner, James L. Pate, is one of the nation's top business economists and, not surprisingly, one of the leading economic forecasters," Silbert said at the ceremony. "In every way he exemplifies the purpose of the award, which is to set the highest standards in economic forecasting."

Pate, who served as a special White House advisor and as assistant secretary of Commerce during the Ford administration, made several predictions for the coming year, including:

* Further declines in housing and auto sales during the current quarter, with only gradual recovery next year.

* Continued moderation in prices, with the inflation rate dropping from 9 percent this year to 8 percent in 1982.

* Declines in interest rates, with the prime dropping from 18 percent to 16 percent or lower by year's end, and to the 12-13 percent range by the end of next year.

"If interest rates are allowed to decline and the White House and the American public can 'hang tough' and hold firm to the commitment of reducing both taxes and government spending, the economy will turn around early next year," he predicted.