It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, there seems to be a bit of a split on whether Utah's economy is going to the top or going in the tank.First the optimistic view: "In sharp contrast to a faltering national business climate, Utah's economy in the fourth quarter remains one of the nation's healthiest . . . new job growth in Utah during the third quarter was second highest nationally and momentum through the fourth quarter remains particularly favorable."

That's the view of Kelly K. Matthews, senior economist for First Security Corp. in the bank holding company's quarterly newsletter "Insights" released this week.

Sounds good, but Utah business executives and Utah consumers have a different, more foreboding, view of the state's economic landscape.

According to the Utah State Tax Commission, "The view of Utah's economy by its business executives worsened in the fourth quarter of 1990, although the leaders appeared to remain more upbeat than their peers nationwide."

That is the conclusion of a survey conducted for the commission by the University of Utah Research Center, which found a "gradual erosion" in optimism during the first three quarters of this year after peaking in January.

Tax Commission spokeswoman Janice J. Perry said the index for large businesses has declined 13 points, from 59 in the third quarter to 46 in the fourth while the score for moderate-size businesses dropped 12 points from 57 to 45.

Perry said a score of 50 reflects a feeling that the economy is unchanged while a score of 75 indicates moderate improvement. Below 50 indicates descending degrees of pessimism.

In another survey by the U. Research Center for the Tax Commission, Utah consumers were even more downbeat, said Perry, as the Utah Index of Consumer Sentiment (ICS) dropped from 86.1 in the third quarter to 66.9 in the fourth.

As with the executives, though, the local decline in confidence of nearly 20 points still bested the 25 point decline measured nationally. The U.S. index plummeted from 88.2 to 63.9 beginning in August when Iraq invaded Kuwait and gasoline prices soared.

Perry said Tax Commission economists believe the decline in Utah consumers' confidence in their personal financial outlook may have influenced the November election. They note that, historically, people "vote their pocketbooks."

The consumer indices - measuring current views and their expectations for the future - are based on 100 beginning in 1966 when consumer confidence was high. Calculations lower than that figure indicate a decline in confidence when compared with that upbeat year.

The study indicates that Utahns are a long way form 1966. Those who believe it is now a "good" time to buy a major appliance fell from 76 percent in April to 47 percent in October; 41 percent said October 1990 was a "bad" time to buy. Asked if they expect their personal finances to improve over the next 12 months, 28 percent said "better" and 23 percent said "worse."

All that pessimism notwithstanding, First Security's Matthews points out that Fortune magazine recently named Utah the best place in the country to do business, second quarter growth of 7.5 percent in Utah's personal income was second highest nationally, and non-farm employment was up 4.7 percent over last year to 33,000 jobs.

And while the national real estate sector is in a deep recession, Matthews notes that con-struction/real estate is having its best year in Utah since the early 1980s. "National conditions undoubtedly will have some impact locally, but the painful adjustments made in Utah real estate in 1986-88 should partially insulate the state in 1991."

Being a cockeyed optimist, I like Matthews' outlook better than the Tax Commission's prognosis. On the other hand, that survey will be used in forecasting the state sales and use taxes that make up 87 percent of General Fund revenues.

You can take your pick.