In a generally upbeat report on the state of American business, the Commerce Department yesterday predicted slower but continued growth for most U.S. industries in 1991 with strong overseas sales making up for the slack in a stagnant domestic market.

The department's annual industrial outlook for the new year said high-technology industries will set the pace for other manufacturing sectors, with semiconductor sales expected to grow by 8.9 percent and computer industry shipments to rise by 6 percent.

As an indication of how export growth will help the economy, high-tech sales in Europe and East Asia are expected to do better than sales in the United States.

"The more rapid growth {for high technology} is a strong indication of two important trends: increased use of automation to improve productivity and the expanded demand for information services," said Jonathan C. Menes, director of the Commerce Department's office of finance, industry and trade information.

Despite that upbeat projection, Commerce Undersecretary J. Michael Farren said the 350 U.S. industries covered by the report will grow at a smaller rate in 1991 than they did this year. "The economy is down," he said.

Sixty percent of the industries covered in the report will experience some degree of growth, about the same percentage as last year.

Overall, the median growth rate for the manufacturing sector is expected to be about 0.9 percent in 1991, compared with about 1 percent in 1990, the report said.

The Commerce Department projections are based on the nation skirting a recession in 1991, with a gradual increase in economic activity in the final six months. While that is a rosy scenario for the economy, which many private analysts believe already is in a recession, it is well within the range of mainstream forecasts.

A senior Bush administration economist, for example, believes there is a small chance the United States will avoid a full-blown recession next year although the odds are that there will be enough of an economic downturn in 1991 to fit the technical definition of a recession.

The predictions in the Commerce report are hedged by the uncertainty of the Persian Gulf crisis, which makes the international economic situation "fraught with uncertainty," said John E. Jelacic, senior international economist at the Commerce Department.

The Commerce Department predicted more bad news for the automotive and construction industries, with their likely poor performances hurting related manufacturing industries such as steel, glass, building materials, furniture, household durable goods and wood products.

Machine-tool manufacturing is expected to be the only traditional U.S. industry to show strength, an indication "that businesses will continue to invest in new equipment needed to raise efficiency and productivity in today's increasingly competitive environment," Farren said.

"Our analysts see a trend toward continued investment, not so much to increase capacity as to improve efficiency, increase international competitiveness and meet new environmental standards," he said.

Health-related industries also are expected to do well, with continued strong growth in sales of dental equipment and mental health equipment.

Farren said the expected stronger economic growth in Europe and Asia, combined with a weaker U.S. dollar, provide a fertile field for increased overseas sales of made-in-America products. He said economic growth in the rest of the world should average 2 percent, higher than in the United States, and growth is expected to be greater in the prime American export markets of Europe and Asia.

Import growth is dropping, he said, as the lower dollar makes foreign products more expensive here and slow economic growth reduces demand.

"The biggest issue to me is whether American manufacturers will see the opportunities overseas early enough to take advantage of them," Farren said. "Now is the year to look overseas. You have never seen a better set of circumstances for American companies to look overseas for sales and growth."

Although exports amount to about 10 percent of the U.S. gross national product, which is the value of all goods and services produced, overseas sales accounted for about 70 percent of the total economic growth during the first nine months of 1990, the Commerce Department reported.

U.S. exports have grown 7 percent, or $25 billion, in the first 10 months of 1990, setting a monthly record of $34.8 billion in October.

"Manufactured exports kept the United States out of recession in early 1990, and will be critical to continued U.S. growth," Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said last month.

Underscoring the optimistic Commerce Department forecast on exports, the American Electronics Association estimated earlier this month that the electronics industry trade deficit with the world will shrink 90 percent this year, to $1.9 billion from $9.6 billion in 1989.

"Most of the improvement was due to a surge in exports by U.S. electronics firms," said J. Richard Iverson, president of the association.

Electronics exports grew 15.4 percent in the first nine months of 1990, totaling $52 billion, while imports rose less than 3 percent.

Aircraft manufacturers are expected to have another strong year, Farren said. The U.S. aircraft industry sold 524 large commercial planes this year, a 23 percent increase, and predictions are that sales will rise another 6 percent, to 610 planes, in 1991.