NEW YORK, JAN. 2 -- The Dow Jones industrial average fell 23 points today as fears of recession overcame encouraging news of lower interest rates and oil prices.

The latest evidence for recession was a dire 40.4 percent reading on the National Association of Purchasing Management's December economic index, compared with a reading of 41.3 percent in November.

A reading below 50 percent implies a contracting economy, and a reading below 44 percent implies recession.

At the same time, various White House officials today also admitted that a full-blown national recession had probably already begun.

On the interest rate front, many of the nation's largest banks lowered their prime rate today to 9.5 percent in response to Federal Reserve action and slackening loan demand.

The move, along with another $1.95 drop in the price of a barrel of crude oil, sent bond prices up more than a point. Oil closed at $26.49 in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The divergence between stocks and bonds underscored arguments that the economy has reached a threshold where a recessionary "decoupling" between the two markets is becoming more apparent. Stocks perform poorly during economic contractions, while long-term bonds post hefty capital gains as the economic slowdown drags interest rates lower.

"The decoupling of stocks and bonds seems to be in earnest today," said strategist Jack Conlon at Rothschild Inc. "It doesn't bode well for the longer-term stock market.

At the close, the Dow stood at 2610.64, down 23.02, while declines led advances on the Big Board by a ratio of about 9 to 7 on light volume of 126 million shares.

Among Dow components, a number fell on profit taking. Coca-Cola dropped 1 1/4 to 45 1/4, Procter & Gamble eased 1 1/8 to 85 1/2 and Exxon dipped 1 to 50 3/4.

Among industry groups, oil stocks were broadly lower. Retailers showed resilience as Gap Stores tacked on 2 1/8 points to 34 7/8.

Most money-center banks that lowered prime rates today rose fractionally.

Elsewhere among financial issues, the federally chartered Student Loan Marketing Association rose 1 1/2 to 47 3/4 after agreeing to purchase a $1.2 billion portfolio of insured student loans from Chase Manhattan.

Drug stocks also showed some gains.

Amgen Inc., in particular, rose 1 1/2 to 63 3/4 in Nasdaq trading, reacting to a U.S. approval of a genetically engineered product that boosts blood production for use in treating severe anemia. Such anemia weakens many AIDS patients taking the drug AZT.

Abbott Labs lost 1 3/4 before closing at 43 1/4 after the stock was removed from Donaldson Lufkin's recommended list.

Unisys added 1/4 to 2 7/8 in active trading after winning a $5.7 million contract from a Polish bank. TRW fell 1 5/8 to 36 1/4 after predicting disappointing fourth-quarter profits.

The Dow transportation average slipped 1.31 to 909.30, but the interest-sensitive utilities average presented a more troubling performance, losing 1.26 to 208.50 despite the hefty gains in bonds.

Among broad stock indexes, most of which under-performed the Dow until late trading, the Standard & Poor's 500 closed down 3.78 at 326.45, the New York Stock Exchange Composite down 1.87 at 178.62, the Value Line down 0.31 at 241.21, the Amex Market Value down 1.54 at 306.57 and the Nasdaq Composite down 1.65 at 372.19.