Commerce Department economists have forecast a healthier 1983 for most American industries--led by pickups in housing starts, auto sales and steel production and more bouyant banking and thrift institutions.

Following the Reagan administration line of a moderate recovery next year, the Commerce experts predicted growths for 173 of the 212 industries covered. In 1982--described by Undersecretary Robert G. Dederick as a year of a "rough recession"--Commerce's Bureau of Industrial Economics said only 66 of 212 industries showed any growth.

The forecast shows small pickups in the smokestack industries that traditionally fueled the American economy while the new technology of computers and microchips were seen as "bright stars."

Dederick said he feels there will be a "dramatic change . . . quite a turnaround" in 1983, though he cautioned that only 57 industries will grow beyond their 1972-1980 peaks. He called the projected 1983 improvement "a start" and predicted that 1984 would be better.

But Dederick acknowledged all the predictions depend on the recovery having started in the last quarter of 1982 and continuing through 1983. The recovery, however, got off to a slower start than the Commerce economists expected; Director of Research John E. Cremeans said the assumption of a 3.7 percent jump in gross national product for 1983, made last October and printed in the forecast, has turned out to be "too optimistic." Although Dederick refused to give his estimate of a more likely GNP figure, some administration sources now predict it could be as low as 2 percent.

"If we were to have a weaker recovery than the moderate recovery we are predicting for 1983, they [the estimates on American industries] would have to be scaled down," said Dederick.

The Commerce Department said four of the five industries that are critical for recovery and long term economic growth--construction, autos, steel and the savings and loan section of the financial service industry--had a "difficult" 1982 but should rebound in 1983. The fifth key industry, aerospace, was described as "in transition."

The construction industry is expected to have its its first yearly increase since 1978, a modest 4 percent, with a large gain in housing starts making up for declines in other areas. With the expectation of a continued fall in mortgage rates, housing starts are expected to increase by 21 percent--from 625,000 new homes in 1982 to 875,000 in 1983. But this will still be far below the 1.4 million housing starts recorded in 1977 and 1978.

Non-residential construction, however, is expected to decline in 1983, though there may be an upturn in the second half of the year. Construction of new offices, which reached a cyclical peak in 1982, is expected to drop this year because of overbuilding, the Commerce Department said.

The Commerce Department economist were bullish on the American auto industry, predicting a 19 percent increase in sales in 1983--to 6.8 milion cars and trucks. The economists said new car sales are expected to gain as wear and tear takes its toll on presently owned cars; money in many Americans' pockets increases because of new tax cuts, and interest rates continue to drop.

Steel, which hit a 22-year-low in 1982, is expected to turn around this year, with domestic production reaching 75 to 80 million tons. This increase depends, however, on the auto and home appliance industries growing as expected and steel barons deciding to rebuild inventories that were used up in 1982. Production in 1982 fell to 60 million tons, the lowest level since 1958, as American mills operated at about 40 percent of capacity.

The savings and loan industry is also expected to improve in 1983 from a year of "unprecedented losses," the Commerce Department said, and both commercial banks and thrift institutions will have enough money to finance the expected recovery.

The fifth key industry, aerospace, was seen in the bottom of a sharp decline in demand for large civilian planes, while the expected growth in military orders has not yet materialized.

The forecast also pointed to seven high-tech "bright stars" headed by robotics, which is expected to grow 25 percent. The fast moving semiconductor industry, whose products are used in most of the high-tech products, faces an anticipated growth of 15 percent this year.

Predicted as other big movers in 1983 are computers, up 18 percent; toys and games, up 9 percent; surgical and medical instruments, up 9 percent; radio and TV equipment, up 8 percent, and guided missiles and space, up 8 percent. Both radio and TV equipment and guided missiles depend heavily on military spending; 20 percent of the military procurement budget goes to electronics.

Among the industries expected to remain sluggish in 1983 are machine tools, facing a weakness in demand and increased competition from high quality and lower priced foreign imports; farm machinery, hit by high interest rates and low farm prices; airlines, weakened by three years of slow growth and killing fare discounts that may have spelled the end of some distressed lines; chemicals, especially fertilizer, pushed down by a depressed agricultrure economy; nuclear power, which has not received a new domestic order since 1974 and doesn't expect any for the rest of the decade; non-ferrous metals, now selling below costs and which are not expected to begin growing until 1984 or later, and nonrubber footwear, hurt badly by imports and facing further plant closing and increased unemployment in 1983.