BALTIMORE, JAN. 2 -- Maryland officials groped today for ways to accentuate the positive as they issued an annual report on the state's economy, but they acknowledged that the most important economic trends of 1990 were negative.

It's no secret that "the slowdown of the economy in 1990 and the Persian Gulf crisis have created economic and fiscal pressures for Maryland," said J. Randall Evans, secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development.

"The slowdown means that Maryland will create fewer jobs in 1991 than was anticipated," he added.

At a news conference in Baltimore, Evans argued that Maryland's recession will be "mild and brief," citing the state's strong performance during previous national slumps and its relative strength compared to other states now.

"If you're going to be in a storm, Maryland is a good ship to be on," Evans said. "We are still showing some growth. Granted, it is marginal."

Indeed, employment in Maryland increased by only 0.4 percent, or 10,479 people, last year, according to a report compiled by Evans's department, which used figures as of October 1990. Meanwhile, unemployment during that period rose from 4.1 percent to 4.5 percent. The national unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in October.

Evans's department also found that manufacturing employment and building permits dropped significantly in 1990 while unemployment rose slightly.

Evans stressed that the state remains among the wealthiest in the nation, with one of the lowest rates of business failure. He noted that "inflation is not at double-digit levels, inventories are low compared to sales and auto sales are strong, though slightly down in September."

And what about 1991? The report predicts that Maryland will come out of the recession during or after the second quarter of 1991 and show modest growth.

Evans had been able to paint much brighter portraits for the years 1988 and 1989, when Maryland's labor force and employment levels rose rapidly. Particularly bleak areas in the 1990 report were on the poorer parts of the state, such as the lower Eastern Shore, Western Maryland and Baltimore. In Baltimore, the unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in October 1990, compared with 5.6 percent the year before.

Manufacturing jobs, which have been dropping steadily in Maryland for years, continued to vanish -- declining in 1990 by 2.5 percent or 5,200 jobs.

But the service sector has continued to grow, increasing by 57,600 jobs, or 3 percent, in the first 10 months of 1990, the report said.

The building industry saw a sharp decline in the number of residential building permits issued. The report noted that, during the first 10 months of the year, permits decreased by 13.8 percent in Maryland and 14.6 percent nationally.

The report's authors argue, however, that the decline in construction and real estate activity -- "the weakest sectors of the economy" -- has been gathering momentum for two years without "significant negative impacts on the economy." And they note that, throughout this period, employment in the construction industry has remained stable.

Retail sales in Maryland increased a modest 4.8 percent last year, less than in previous years but more than in the nation as a whole. Nationally they increased 3.7 percent.