It reads like a paragraph out of last week's newspaper: ''Stock prices plunged as fear of higher interest rates, higher inflation and increased Middle East tensions ... gripped individual and institutional investors.''

But, in fact, those words were written on Oct. 19, 1987, following the record 508-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average.

Although the market began to recover almost immediately after that historic fall, the drop caused financial ruin for some investors and brokerage firms and scared many away from the stock market for good.

Today's troubles and those that toppled the market three years ago are disconcertingly similar, experts note. Not only is the economy in much the same precarious position as it was then, the United States is again flirting with war in the Middle East. In 1987, the United States attacked several Iranian vessels as the war between Iran and Iraq threatened shipping in the Persian Gulf.

The stock market began slipping, as investors became increasingly skittish about the nation's economic prospects and the impact of uncertain oil supplies in 1987 and now.

However, few believe that the stock market is currently headed for another historic plunge. Since 1987, many measures have been taken to reduce the chance of a severe one-day dive. More importantly, market perceptions and stock values are currently at more realistic levels, experts maintain.

''You get real market crashes when investors have high expectations and high margin exposure,'' said Michael Metz, market strategist at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York. Right now investors are pessimistic and instead of borrowing to buy stocks, they are hoarding cash, Metz maintained.

Stocks, which were selling for more than 20 times earnings in 1987, are now selling for less than 16 times earnings -- still a high price by historic standards but certainly not as out-of-sync with normal levels as it was in the past, added Rich Bernstein, manager of quantitative analysis at Merrill Lynch Capital Markets in New York.

Additionally, stock exchanges and large brokerage firms have instituted a series of safeguards meant to discourage severe one-day declines.

Meanwhile, many of the nation's biggest brokerage firms have backed out of computerized program trading, which was blamed, in part, for the October 1987 free fall. Other investment houses said that they would adhere to strict guidelines that would keep them from selling stocks when market conditions suddenly went sour.

Still, some seasoned experts downplay the importance of these measures in preventing a crash.

''You cannot synthetically stop a market from declining,'' said Kenneth L. Fisher, president of Fisher Investments in Woodland, Calif. "In fact, you could argue that they would make things worse.'' Investors might get panicky if they were unable to trade because of a market halt, he added.

Others doubt that Wall Street firms would stick by their internal guidelines if it threatened to cost the brokerage money.

''Unfortunately, the history of the financial markets is that people who engage in them tend to be limited in their vision and their sense of responsibility,'' said Laszlo Birinyi, president of Birinyi Associates, a New York investment research firm.

However, all this does not mean that stock values are about to stabilize or head higher. Although there may not be a swift drop, many expect stock values to continue to slowly erode by as much as 20 percent from the current levels. And if the economy falters, the market could slip even more.