Shades of the Depression! When the federal government has to stop a run on a $13 billion bank by taking it over, you know that the nation's economy is in real trouble. But despite the Bank of New England failure (it should have been closed a year ago), a series of interviews reveals widespread disagreement among experts on just how bad a recession we face.

"I find the decline to date is about average. I would call it a typical, garden variety of recession," says former Federal Reserve Board governor Lyle Gramley. "Still, I have to say that the risks are on the downside." A deep recession, federal bank regulator L. William Seidman admits, would accelerate the pace of bank failures.

Investment banker Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres is a pessimist: "I have never been as uneasy about the outlook in 40 years. Everywhere you look, you see red lights blinking. I see something beyond recession, but short of depression."

But some experts are convinced that the anecdotal evidence of recession -- the horror stories of individual, company or regional problems -- is worse than the actual numbers. At the end of November, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said that "the world out there, whenever you look at the hard data, is not in as bad a shape as it feels."

The Brookings Institution's Charles Schultze says that "these anecdotes cause us to examine our position with more care, but having done so, our conclusion is that we face a moderate recession, a lot less than the one we had in 1981-82, with recovery getting underway {later} in 1991."

With the caveat that no single month's statistics is a sure guide, George Perry of Brookings points to the December labor force data as an indication that "the falling-off-the-cliff school doesn't look too good." Although the jobless rate jumped to 6.1 percent, total hours worked in December actually topped November's.

"What we've had is an economy where certain sectors were at a depression level, so the anecdotes {of major trouble} were quite real," Perry said. "Yet, they didn't add up to a lot of GNP."

Gramley cites credit as one area where the actual statistics don't look as bad as the anecdotal evidence. But even so, he admits, "This {credit situation} is different. We've never lived through a period {like this}. We look at it and wonder what it means." Rohatyn broods over the depletion of the domestic credit system, exacerbated now by Japan's and Germany's need to keep at home more of their capital "that we have been living off."

There are some positive elements in the economy that could lead to a turnaround. Business inventories are lean instead of fat, mortgage and other interest rates have come down (with the probability that the Federal Reserve can be expected to push them even lower) and a cheaper dollar helps make exports of American goods attractive. Economic Council Chairman Michael J. Boskin guesses that the worst of the decline has already been registered in 1990's final quarter.

Yet it is difficult for anyone, including those who see only a moderate recession, to build a scenario that restores the economy quickly to a sustained period of vigorous economic growth. The federal budget deficit is huge, and a future tax increase to pay for the costs of Desert Shield and the S&L/bank bailouts looms on the not-so-distant horizon.

There is no blinking the reality of an overbuilt real estate market that helped precipitate the crisis among financial institutions. Even relative optimist Perry grants that commercial real estate is in its own depression: "It'll be a long time before anyone builds a commercial building again." Lenders are super-cautious in extending new credit for any purpose. And state and local governments are being forced to cut services and lay off workers.

What's more, although the rise in unemployment during the past year has primarily hit production workers, a severe crisis in the financial and business-services industries has had an early impact on white-collar jobs for the first time.

The showdown with Saddam Hussein further clouds the outlook. If there is no war -- or, at worst, only a short one -- most anticipate a revival of consumer and business confidence. If there is a protracted war, all bets are off.

But even a quick end to the Gulf crisis won't end the troubles of the economy. Lee Price of the Joint Economic Committee staff says, "We can't get back to 3 to 4 percent real growth until we write off some of the debt overload -- junk bonds, real estate and so on. We can have a short, shallow recession, but we can stay at a sluggish level for a long time."

So how will the recession of 1990-91 wind up? Better not to ask. John Kenneth Galbraith, testifying Monday before a Senate Labor subcommittee, said that in forecasting recession, there are two kinds of economists: "There's the kind that doesn't know, and then there's the kind that doesn't know that it doesn't know."