In the wake of the October stock market crashes around the world, economic forecasters are sensibly cautious about making predictions for this year.

For one thing, no one is quite sure what the loss of wealth caused by the drop in stock prices will mean to consumer spending. In the United States, that loss at the bottom of the slide was estimated by the Brady Commission at about $1 trillion. On the other hand, the level of wealth is no worse than it was at the beginning of 1987.

Moreover, to add to uncertainties, there is the fact that this is an election year. Many assume that the government -- including the Federal Reserve Board -- will do what it can to keep the economy prosperous.

The common thread in most forecasts is that things will slow down in the U.S. economy this year because of the crash, but -- unless there is another upheaval in the stock market -- there will be no collapse. The Reagan administration and private forecasters say that the crash sliced the probable 1988 growth rate by about one full percentage point.

Most private forecasters project a real growth rate around 2 percent, or possibly a bit lower. The more optimistic Reagan administration guesses around 2.7 percent this year. In part, the Reagan team was counting on a turnaround in the trade deficit, and they have been rewarded with a significant improvement in the November 1987 figures, reported on Friday.

Former Treasury official C. Fred Bergsten sees a 50-50 chance of recession in 1988. "There is a possibility of a sharp and quick turndown stemming from a further fall in the dollar," he says. But if an improvement in the trade deficit continues, pressure will be taken off the dollar. Anecdotal evidence supplied by some major American businessmen is that exports are enjoying a boom. That could lead to a string of favorable trade numbers through this spring.

But if the trade numbers -- which will be watched closely -- begin to show the deficit climbing again, the Bergsten scenario would imply a weakening of the dollar and a boost in interest rates in an effort to keep the flow of foreign investment money coming in.

The Data Resources Group sees weakness, but no recession. "Buoyed by the strength of capital goods and exports, the U.S. economy should be able to avoid a recession in 1988," they say. "The evidence available in the two months since the stock market crash suggests that consumers will not be as severe a drag on the economy as feared... . The key risk is whether the Federal Reserve will add sufficient liquidity {cash} in time to keep the expansion going."

DRI adds one significant warning: The real estate market is vulnerable at the moment because of high vacancy rates in commercial office buildings, which became less desirable as tax shelters under the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

"The nightmare scenario for banks is a real estate collapse and a junk bond market collapse taking down a number of savings and loan institutions, even though the banks would be rescued now as they weren't in the early 1930s," says James Stone, president of Plymouth Rock Assurance Corp., a property-casualty insurer in Boston. "That would still be a terrible thing in terms of confidence in the economy generally."

On the other hand, Fortune magazine has an upbeat headline for its survey of the economy even prior to the November trade figures: "Surprising Help From the Crash." Fortune's analysis is that Black Monday made a recession before mid-1989 less likely. Its rationale: The market plunge is forcing consumers, who were spending a "profligate share" of their incomes, as well as the government, to cut spending. That should end fears of runaway inflation and produce slow growth for 1988, says Fortune.

But that's all assuming the crash "has not created hidden cracks that could still bring confidence tumbling down," and that none of the world's many international financial problems, such as a wildly fluctuating dollar, flare up again.

In sum, economic forecasters are trying to measure the unmeasurable -- consumer psychology. According to the Conference Board, American consumers appear to have been "only moderately dazed" by Black Monday.

But it seems only logical to believe that consumers will be considerably more cautious, at least until the stock market begins to show greater stability. The Brady commission has elevated the public's awareness of the degree to which a few large institutions control the stock market. Even the old conventional wisdom that there is safety in mutual funds, which were supposed to offer protection through diversification, has been shattered: When the whole market slides like an iceberg, there is no more safety in mutual funds than in individual stocks. In fact, as mutual fund owners pulled money out, mutual fund managers had to unload stocks in big bunches, accelerating the pace of the market crash.

This all adds up to a year of uncertainty. Although the response of the Federal Reserve Board and other central banks to the crash was prompt enough (they pumped cash into the system, lowering interest rates), other needed governmental policy responses were not made. The United States labored mightily and produced a negligible budget deficit reduction package. The West Germans have not only refused to attack high unemployment with a stimulus program, but now -- incredibly -- propose to raise taxes, which could trigger a European recession.

So none of the key international economic problems that underlay the stock market bust has been solved. Even if the United States escapes a recession in 1988, the basic problems will be left for the incoming president in January 1989. A trade deficit annualized at the November 1987 level would still be unacceptably high. So it's hard to understand why anyone would want to be president for these next four years -- whoever is elected is almost sure to be a one-term president. Perhaps that explains the reticence of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Sens. Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley!