For the first time, recession is not merely threatened by a decline in business and consumer confidence, it is being confirmed by actual events: Real economic indicators portray a weakness spreading through the economy -- both by industry sector and geographic region.

Ironically, definitive signs of a classic recession come just as hopes for peace in the Persian Gulf -- which contributed to the earlier anxiety -- are significantly better. What that tells us is that the economy was on the brink of recession even before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Peace, if it comes, will lower oil prices and relieve war anxieties, including financial-market jitters. But peace is not an elixir that will solve all the pressing problems of the economy.

The Congressional Budget Office last week said that economic assumptions made as a basis for the October deficit-reduction package are no longer valid. Moreover, the CBO expects that when revisions are made again late in January, the economic numbers will be even gloomier -- leading to projections of even bigger budget deficits.

In July, the CBO had guessed the 1991 real growth rate at a sluggish but respectable 2.5 percent, year over year. By October -- cranking in high oil prices, weak real estate markets and "problems with the balance sheets of many banks and corporations" -- the CBO marked its estimate down to 0.6 percent. Thus, the CBO was tipping us off that its January forecast for 1991 will be negative or close to negative.

All of the key economic indicators -- on employment, initial claims for unemployment insurance, manufacturing sales and activity, and real personal income -- have turned down. Consumer spending, buoyed by deep retail discounts, has been fairly well sustained. This encourages some economists to believe that a 1991 setback could be mild.

The single most important new statistic was reported by Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Janet L. Norwood on Dec. 7: Unemployment rose to 5.9 percent in November, up from 5.2 percent in June.

That's the biggest short-term jump in the unemployment rate since 1983, and it confirms that the drop in industrial jobs can no longer be covered up by expansion in the service sector. A Deutsche Bank analysis points out, "A growing number of {American} companies are obviously trying to counter what is in some cases a steep decline in profits by pruning their work force. Although this may, from a microeconomic point of view, be a reasonable thing to do, the macroeconomic effect is that the erosion of purchasing power thus caused threatens to bring on a self-feeding downswing."

Gail B. Fosler, chief economist of the Conference Board, agreed that businesses have been making "preemptive" reductions in their payrolls. "Employment has taken a disproportionate cut," Fosler told me. "Business has been sitting there waiting for a recession, and Iraq galvanized the pessimism. So business protected itself before seeing anticipated cuts in demand."

For example, she said that auto companies laid off more workers than necessary to match declining sales. Fosler nonetheless is a relative optimist: She sees a gain in first-quarter 1991 GNP, following a decline of 1.3 percent this quarter. But she predicted that the unemployment rate will continue to rise next year. "I don't have a recession {in my forecast}, but I also don't have a recovery," she said.

Norwood reported that nearly 800,000 factory jobs have been wiped out since January 1989. The manufacturing decline is across the board, but more dramatic in the auto sector. Construction industries were also hard hit, with new-home building at the lowest levels since 1982. Housing sales have also plummeted to an eight-year low. The National Association of Home Builders expects the slump to continue into next year, with mortgage rates, now under 10 percent, dipping to the 9 percent range.

The one bright spot in the economy has been exports, which, stimulated by a cheap dollar, have been booming for the past three years. But a new Conference Board report warns that an economic slowdown elsewhere in 1991, especially in Europe, will hurt sales abroad, making it difficult for the United States to exit from a downturn. That dismal perspective is based on flat economic indicators in nine out of the 11 major industrial nations. Europe -- except for Germany -- is now expected to settle for growth in the 2.0 percent to 2.5 percent range.

White House and Treasury officials have not yet been willing to utter the "R" word, although chief economic adviser Michael J. Boskin has publicly acknowledged "a noticeable contraction" during this quarter. Administration sources say Boskin has advised President Bush that the economy did enter a recession in this quarter and that it will last for another three to six months -- with the present quarter the worst of it.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan also has all but acknowledged a recession probability. What Greenspan hasn't promised is an easy money policy to make a recession mild and short. Greenspan is constrained because the weak dollar that sustains exports also discourages the inflow of foreign capital.

Restraint at the Fed in the face of weakness in the banking and real estate sectors is the main reason for the conclusion of many economists -- even those who cling to the hope that an actual recession might be averted -- that there will be little pep in the U.S. economy for some time to come.