After being locked in fast forward for most of the 1980s, the Washington area economy is gradually shifting to a slower rate of growth, according to local economists and business and government leaders.

Personal income, employment and commercial conhave risen to record levels since 1983, but after five years of rapid expansion -- following the nation's worst recession since World War II -- growth in the region's economy will moderate in 1988, most experts say.

The anticipated slower growth rate is really the continuation of a trend that developed in 1987. In fact, the rate at which new jobs are being added to the economy began to drop as early as 1985. Still, area business leaders and economists forecast continued growth -- not as strong as the frenetic pace of two or three years ago, but generally stronger than in most major metropolitan areas in the country.

The Washington area simply has reached the limits of prolonged expanded growth, according to most experts, and area residents can expect to see only slight gains from last year.

"We've gone through this 60-month cycle of growth, so there's got to be some slowdown," said C.A. Cutchins III, chairman of Sovran Financial Corp. in Norfolk, the region's largest bank company.

The outlook in Virginia is for "respectable growth, but ... a deceleration from the current pace," according to a forecast by the College of William and Mary's school of business administration.

"Cyclical forces behind the deceleration in Virginia's growth will be operating at least as strongly in 1988, further dampening the state's real growth," said Roy L. Pearson, director of the school's bureau of business research, in Virginia Business Report, a monthly publication of the college's school of business administration.

The same factors appear to be at work in Maryland, although J. Randall Evans, the state's secretary of the Division of Employment and Economic Development, projects continuing strength in Maryland's economy, particularly in the suburban areas outside the District.

In the District, steady growth in the services sector, a strong office construction market and a dramatic drop in average annual unemployment to the lowest level in 13 years -- 6.7 percent -- should sustain relatively strong economic growth.

In general, the local economy will outperform the national economy, said Thomas F. Carpenter, chief economist and vice president at ASB Capital Management, a subsidiary of Washington's American Security Bank.

The local economy "will do very well in a relative sense and well in an absolute sense," Carpenter said, adding that the Washington area has "one of the better balanced {economic} systems in the country."

Potomac Electric Power Co., although not quite as bullish as Carpenter, who doesn't anticipate "any real slowdown," concluded in its long-term forecast that employment and income will continue to increase, but not as rapidly as during the early years of economic expansion in the area.

More specifically, according to economists at Bell Atlantic, the area's economy will grow about 2.5 percent to 3 percent this year, compared with a 2.5 percent increase expected in the gross national product. The area's economy this year will be "healthy but not buoyant; high enough to maintain high levels of income and employment but not real high growth," said David Pitcher, manager of economic analysis at Bell Atlantic.

Employment levels in the area are expected to remain strong, but new jobs will be created at a much slower rate this year, continuing a pattern that actually began three or four years ago, said Richard Groner, director of the division of labor market information at the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Although the area's economy is expected to remain stronger than most over the next 11 months, doubts lingering in the wake of the stock market's collapse last October and uncertainty about the movement of interest rates this year could force some postponement of business expansion and consumer spending plans. Even those concerns aren't expected to have much impact on the area's economy in 1988.

In fact, uncertainty over federal spending plans is likely to have a more limiting effect on business expansion plans locally, interviews with several observers indicated. Any cutback in federal spending, they said, is bound to have an effect on the area's economy. A reduction in federal spending for office space, for example, could adversely affect the private office market here.

Of more importance, however, are federal purchases of goods and services -- critical factors in the growth of the region's service-oriented private sector. A 1984 study commissioned by the Greater Washington Research Center showed that federal purchases in the area between 1979 and 1983 almost doubled -- from $3.4 billion to $6.7 billion.

"Significant federal government spending cutbacks could affect disposable income and consumer spending in Maryland," acknowledged Evans, the state's economic development chief.

Despite concerns about federal spending, job growth and employment in 1988 should be comparable to 1987 levels, said Groner, even though government employment is less a factor than it had been. Unemployment in the area will remain about 3 percent, he said, while joblessness in the District could fall to 6 percent or less, the lowest level in 15 years.

The key to continued low unemployment in the area is expansion in the services sector. Unemployment fell to 3.4 percent in metropolitan Washington last year when, for the first time, more than 2 million persons were employed in the area. Most worked in the service sector.

In fact, services and trade accounted for 90 percent of the 400,000 jobs that have been added to the local economy since 1980. While new jobs won't be added as quickly this year, the private sector will continue to drive job growth, again with the service sector leading the way, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

The labor pool for area employers will continue to shrink, however, said Dianne Schmidley, manager of demographics/regional economics at Bell Atlantic.

In response to what many have described as a labor shortage in some Washington suburbs, where unemployment is less than 2 percent, several employers have routinely recruited workers from outside the area.

"As far as migration {of workers} into this area is concerned, I think you will see a decline," Schmidley said. "As a balance is struck between this area and others, we're likely to see fewer interstate migrants."

As exports continue to increase, as expected, and as manufacturing picks up in West Virginia and the industrial Midwest, the migration of workers from those states to this area is likely to decline, Schmidley and Pitcher said.

For most nonfarm migrants seeking work in metropolitan Washington's robust economy, the biggest attraction has been the area's construction boom. A slight decline in that sector is expected to further reduce the flow of workers from other states. Commercial construction is expected to decline by as much as 20 percent in the area this year, though some observers, including key lenders, tend to disagree.

"You're probably going to see fewer {office building} starts this year throughout the area until we eat up some of the excess space" in some suburban areas, said Edmund B. Cronin Jr., chairman of Smithy Braedon, a real estate brokerage and management firm. On the other hand, Cronin said, demand for office space will be as strong as last year.

"As long as interest rates remain constant and there are no major blips, there's no reason to think this won't be a good year," for office leasing activity, said James Eichberg, president of Smithy Braedon.

Despite some soft spots in the office leasing market -- areas where new construction has exceeded demand -- building owners will probably lease about 13 million square feet this year, comparable with 1987 figures, Eichberg said. But he agrees with real estate industry officials that overbuilding in recent years will force postponement of the start of construction on some projects.

"I think you're going to see some slowdown in the office sector until you catch up with overbuilding, but {construction} loan demand will continue to be strong," said Cutchins of Sovran Financial.

Most of the loan demand at regional banks will come from corporate borrowers and the construction industry, said Daniel J. Callahan III, chairman of American Security Bank. The outlook for growth in business loan demand at area banks is "pretty good -- 10 percent or better," Callahan said.

Asset growth and earnings, meanwhile, are expected to be 10 percent to 12 percent. Deposit growth at regional banks is expected to be 6 percent to 8 percent, according to most forecasts, with much of the growth in time deposits commanding higher interest rates, rather than lower-yield demand deposits.

Consumers aren't expected to borrow as heavily this year, which has caused bankers to lower their expectations for that business segment.

The new tax laws, which substantially reduces the amount of interest that can be deducted for consumer loans, plus uncertainty about the national economy, will tend to cut into consumer loan demand, most bankers believe.

"We are preparing for a slowdown in loan demand on the consumer side," said William C. Harris, chairman of Washington's Crestar Bank NA {formerly NS&T Bank} and head of banking operations in the Washington region for Richmond-based Crestar Financial Corp. "We've already seen some slowdown in auto financing. Certainly with the very high-ticket {autos} we're beginning to see some slowdown."

While there may be some early hesitancy about buying big-ticket items, retail sales in general in the region will register "above-average gains," given the high levels of disposable income, said Kenneth M. Gassman Jr. of Wheat First Securities in Richmond. Gassman projects national retail sales will grow about 6 percent in 1988, assuming inflation will be in the 4 percent to 5 percent range.

Retail sales in the Washington area will better the national increase by about 25 percent, he estimated. "Not a great year, but not a bust year," Gassman said.

The Washington-Baltimore Regional Association projects retail sales of $47.8 billion in 1988, an increase of 6.4 percent for the regional market.

The alliance of business leaders from the two metropolitan areas also projects a 2.6 percent jump in retail employment, which would boost total retail jobs to 487,000.

Both sales and employment in the retail sector could be lower than expected, however, if Bell Atlantic projections for housing construction hold up.

Substantial increases in residential construction generally result in stronger purchases of household goods. This year, residential construction contracts will decline by as much as 20 percent, said Bell Atlantic economists.

In adjusting to the slower rate of growth in the region, said Bell Atlantic's Schmidley, "You have to apply intelligence. In the past we grew willy-nilly. Now, I think it's a question of how you want to grow and where you want to put your resources."