The nation's consumers have not cut back their spending since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, despite rising energy prices, fears of war and predictions of recession.

Instead of a widely predicted collapse of consumer spending, buying by American households in the past three months apparently was strong enough to boost the entire economy upward at an annual rate of 1.5 percent to 2 percent during that period, analysts said. Such growth, although slow, would be considerably better than the economy's weak performance in the April-May quarter.

"There has been no big falloff," said Thomas Swanstrom, chief economist for Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s merchandise group. "After a little dip right after the {Iraqi} invasion, sales came right back. The trend for the industry is looking pretty good."

The evidence that consumer spending nationally is holding up thus far contrasts with continuing signs of an economic slowdown in the Washington region.

"We have seen a real effect since the notices on furloughs went out to federal workers in the area recently," said J. Warren Harris, chairman of Hecht Co. "As soon as people got those letters {warning of government layoffs if budget negotiations failed}, there was a simultaneous slowdown in sales, just like that."

Hecht's had strong sales in July and August. "But I'd have to say that consumer confidence is very low right now," Harris said.

Economic troubles here and elsewhere along the East Coast are apparently being offset in other parts of the country, at least enough to keep the economy from sinking. Analysts believe that with growth so slow, unemployment is increasing. The September jobless report is due out today.

But the latest data on national auto sales, among the most sensitive indicators of consumer spending, provide evidence that a downturn has not begun, some economists said. In September, consumers bought new cars and light trucks at an annual rate of 10.3 million units, a faster clip than during the first half of the year, automakers reported Wednesday. In the March-April quarter, sales reached an annual rate of only 9.5 million units.

"The car sales strength in September is notable," said Bernard Campbell, an economist at DRI/ McGraw-Hill, an economic consulting firm in Lexington, Mass. "They have been the best of the model year."

Since consumers buy two-thirds of everything the economy produces, when their spending rises substantially, as it did last quarter, nothing short of severe weakness somewhere else, such as in business investment or exports, can drag down the gross national product, the value of the nation's output of goods and services.

With figures for consumer spending in July and August already in hand, DRI estimates that the increase for the July-September quarter was at an annual rate of nearly 4 percent, after adjustment for inflation. If that is confirmed, it would be the biggest quarterly gain for consumer spending in a year. The government's next report on the nation's economic growth will come on Oct. 30.

Many analysts had expected consumer spending to drop as motorists cut back other purchases to offset the added dollars they were shelling out for gasoline. If crude oil prices were to stay at $35 a barrel, compared to the roughly $18 level prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the nation's oil bill would rise by about $100 billion and have the same sort of depressing impact on the economy as a tax increase of that size.

So far, however, consumers have chosen to continue to spend and make up the difference by saving less, Swanstrom said.

Economists continue to stress the vulnerability of the economy, particularly as rising energy prices work their way through to consumers. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called the economy "significantly weakened" by the Middle East crisis and pressures on the financial system.

Swanstrom said it is not really surprising that consumers have not yet changed their spending patterns, since they rarely do so immediately after an abrupt change in income.

"The initial reaction is to keep spending as before and cut saving," Swanstrom said. "After a while people will say, 'Hey, this is going to last' and then cut back."

Some of the recent apparent strength in consumer spending is also due to a rebound from an unusually weak second quarter.

One reason so many analysts have been predicting an immediate sharp drop in sales was a plunge in consumer sentiment surveys. Both the monthly surveys of the University of Michigan and of the Conference Board, a business research organization in New York, showed a large decline in consumer confidence in August following the Iraqi invasion and little or no improvement last month.

But Campbell said that details of the surveys indicated that consumers evidently are more worried about the general economic outlook than they are about their own economic well-being. Under such circumstances, individuals could readily decide to maintain their spending patterns despite their broader concern about where the economy is headed, he said.

Swanstrom said consumers have had to deal with media coverage of the economy that recently has overstated its weakness, perhaps reinforcing their worries. On the other hand, he added, many retailers are "very pessimistic. They don't see it in their sales to date, but they think the Christmas season will be terrible.

"Well, I think it will be a lackluster Christmas, but still better than expected," Swanstrom continued. One reason it will be poor is that retailers' pessimism has kept them from ordering enough goods to sell, he said.

There could be a batch of last-minute orders to suppliers, who would have to be close by to deliver quickly, and that would benefit American producers, and thus the overall U.S. economy, the Sears economist said.

DRI's latest forecast, however, assumes that high oil prices will begin to take their toll of the economy in the last three months of the year, for which it is predicting a decline in consumer spending at a 2.4 percent annual rate while the rest of the economy continues to grow at a 1 percent pace. That combination would produce a decline in real GNP at a 1.3 percent annual rate for the fourth quarter.

Whether that forecast turns out to be right will depend heavily on just how sensitive consumers prove to be to higher gasoline prices, rising layoffs and some of the other forces at work squeezing their incomes. Swanstrom believes that any consumer cutbacks could well be delayed until sometime next year.

But the strength of consumer spending since the oil price shock raises doubts that the U.S. economy has entered a recession, as a number of forecasters, such as Donald Straszheim, chief economist of Merrill Lynch, maintain.