If you are willing to take the word of one veteran forecaster, you can be confident that the economy won't slip into a recession this year.

The prophet in question is not some individual gifted with second sight. Rather, it is the collective vision of countless investors as expressed by the stock market.In recent history, whenever a sustained business slump has occurred - in 1969-70, 1973-75, and 1981-82 - stock prices fell for several months before clear signs of economic weakness appeared.

Now, despite all the talk on Wall Street about an economic slowdown in the face of rising inflation, high interest rates and a long list of other worries, stocks are holding their ground at or near their highest levels in a year and a half.

"One of the best leading indicators we have of the economy, the stock market, is not forecasting a recession," said Jeffrey Applegate at Tucker, Anthony & R.L. Day Inc.

There are plenty of skeptics who question the reliability of the market as an early-warning system.

When stocks crashed in the fall of 1987, they note, the dire events they seemed to be portending never came to pass. That was by no means the first time that the market predicted a phantom event.

Nevertheless, analysts say, it would be very unusual for a real recession to catch stock investors completely by surprise.

"The market has held up incredibly well through a bunch of negatives which, normally, would have thrown stocks into the tank," observed Jay Donnaruma at First Albany Corp. in Albany, N.Y.

Of course, all this could change on very short notice. Most analysts readily acknowledge that there is plenty in the present business and economic picture to worry about.

Consider the assignment facing the Federal Reserve: Clamp down on inflation, but keep the economy moving ahead at a sustained pace, all the while keeping the dollar stable in foreign exchange.

Nevertheless, stocks managed to post their third consecutive weekly gain in the past week. The Dow Jones average of 30 industrials rose 32.26 to 2,337.06.

The New York Stock Exchange composite index gained 1.96 to 168.89; the NASDAQ composite index for the over-the-counter market added 6.97 to 417.68, and the American Stock Exchange market value index was up 5.23 at 335.82.