After more than five years of economic expansion, there are, remarkably, only a handful of items in short supply in the industrial economy.

Usually by this point in an expansion, the U.S. economy woul1679845473of hard-to-get materials, the lead time between placing an order and getting it delivered would be getting long and prices would be rising accordingly.

Currently, the list of items in tight supply is limited to wood pulp and a variety of chemicals and plastics, according to the latest survey of the nation's purchasing managers.

Prices have gone up sharply for these few materials, but not generally. For instance, producer prices for nonferrous metals such as aluminum and copper shot up nearly 40 percent last year while most chemical prices jumped at double-digit rates.

Even including those price increases and the hefty gains for petroleum products, the overall producer price index for intermediate materials went up a modest 5.6 percent in 1987, and some of that can be traced to the impact of the decline of the U.S. dollar on imported goods. Producer prices for finished goods increased only 2.2 percent.

Such numbers confirm the story told by the Federal Reserve's estimates of current use of the nation's productive capacity. Despite the longevity of the expansion, it is not about to be choked off by inflation-generating shortages of capacity.

In the fourth quarter of last year, manufacturers used 82.2 percent of their production capacity, according to the Fed's latest report. That was up from 79.8 percent a year earlier, a hefty increase in utilization in the fifth year of an expansion. Much of the impetus for the increase, of course, came from a big jump in orders of American goods from foreign buyers.

However, utilization of 82 percent of capacity is well below boom levels. The all-time high for manufacturing of 87.7 percent came in October 1973, when producers worldwide were scrambling to meet demand in an environment marked by perceived shortages of a host of goods and materials. The next peak of 86.5 percent came in December 1978, when the demand for goods was again outstripping the capacity of U.S. factories to produce, with all the attendant inflationary pressure.

Some analysts believe utilization must rise to around 85 percent before serious inflation problems are likely to surface. There is no precise point below which there are no problems and above which there are, but the 85 percent level is where a lot of analysts begin to get really concerned about old-fashioned demand-pull inflation.

Thus, even another year of strong manufacturing gains matching 1987 would leave capacity utilization a bit below that critical zone. Moreover, the vast expansion of manufacturing capacity around the world has become, in a very real sense, part of American capacity as well.

During the 1980s, as the huge U.S. trade deficit shows, many U.S. sellers of goods -- whether finished products or intermediate products and components that go into finished products -- have become accustomed to buying foreign goods. If American manufacturers cannot fill an order, or cannot do so for too long a time because of their order backlogs, the buyer will turn to foreign suppliers.

The decline in the value of the dollar may make that somewhat more costly than before, but the goods will be supplied. It is unlikely, given the rate of growth and unused capacity in other nations, that the sort of worldwide shortages and inflationary settings of 1973 or 1978 could develop any time during the coming year.

Meanwhile, there is even more extra capacity in mining and utilities than in manufacturing. Mining utilization was at 80.3 percent of capacity in the fourth quarter, far below its record of 95.2 percent set in January 1980. Similarly, utilities operated at 80.7 percent in the fourth quarter compared with their peak of 96.9 percent in May 1970.

By no means all analysts have such an optimistic view of potential capacity shortages in manufacturing. For instance, David Hale, chief economist of Kemper Financial Services, warns that manufacturing capacity is already so tight that an increase in production to boost American exports may well mean a decline in U.S. consumption. "First, there is growing evidence that the effective utilization rate is much higher, especially in durable goods sectors which suffered from widespread plant closures and labor retrenchment during the mid-1980s," Hale said recently.

"Secondly, {some} industries do not have an adequate labor force to cope with an upsurge in domestic and foreign orders... . The new 'lean and mean business strategy' celebrated by the business media during recent years may simply represent a form of corporate anorexia, which will make it difficult to reduce the trade deficit unless domestic demand is restrained through tighter fiscal and monetary policy," Hale said.

One key element of industrial demand during the 1980s, the large increase in spending for defense and space equipment by the government, has tailed off just as demand for goods for export has gone up. In addition, most forecasters expect manufacturing output to rise somewhat more slowly in 1988 than it did last year precisely because of slower growth in consumer demand.

Jerry Jasinowski, chief economist of the National Association of Manufacturers, projects a 3.5 percent increase in manufacturing output this year compared with 4.1 percent in 1987 and 5.3 percent in 1986. His forecast also calls for capacity utilization rates to stay slightly lower than the 82 percent level of the fourth quarter.