Business starts decreased 6.6 percent during the first quarter to 53,382 new companies, with the finance, insurance and real estate sector leading the overall decline, Dun & Bradstreet Corp. reported.

The quarterly decline marks the seventh consecutive drop in the number of new business starts, the business information service said.The Mountain States - Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada - reported the largest decline in business starts.

Utah's 28.4 percent plummet was the largest drop in the region.

Jeff Thredgold, vice president and economist for Key Bank in Salt Lake City, said the national economic expansion has been going up for several years and it is not unusual for business starts to slow down. In Utah, it might be the function of the viewpoint of the depressed performance of the Utah economy for the past 18 months.

It also might involve some of the negative psychology over the Utah economy and any promotion such as the "Utah A Pretty, Great State" advertisements to change the image is worthwhile, Thredgold said. The figures don't suggest any substantial decline because the Utah economy is doing slightly better than a year ago and the outlook for the next 12 months is better than the past 18 months have gone, he said.

Joseph W. Duncan, economist with Dun & Bradstreet, said the decline was partly attributable to an economy more dependent on "export-driven growth."

"While the current surge in U.S. exports will create new business opportunities in some sectors, existing manufacturers are the primary beneficiaries of the improving trade balance," Duncan said.

Most major industries experienced a slowdown in business starts, led by a 9.8 percent drop in new finance, insurance and real estate businesses.

The number of business starts for that sector fell to 3,565, compared with 3,951 in the year-ago quarter.

Starts for retailing and services, which account for about half of new businesses, also declined.

Retail starts fell 8.1 percent to 14,785 from 16,090 in the first quarter of 1987.

The number of new service companies dropped 5.7 percent to 12,653 during the quarter, compared with 13,419 the year before.

Business starts fell between 5 and 8 percent for other industries, including construction, manufacturing and public utilities.

By contrast, mining and agriculture, forestry and fishing industries reported higher business start levels.

New agricultural businesses increased 11.5 percent to 969 companies from 869 in the year-ago quarter. Mining starts rose about 2 percent to 358.

"Both mining, which includes oil and gas extraction businesses, and agriculture appear to be turning the corner after several years of severe stress," Duncan said.

Dun & Bradstreet reported a decline in business starts for all nine U.S. Bureau of Census regions.

Starts for the region dropped 15.6 percent to 15,653, compared with 17,563 in the first quarter of 1987.

The New England states - Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island - fared the best. The region reported a slight decline of 1.1 percent to 3,091 new businesses.

Only 12 states reported gains in first-quarter starts: Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Ohio, Illinois, Delaware, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Nevada, Hawaii and Oregon.

While the total number of starts fell 6.6 percent, the number of workers employed by new companies only declined 3.5 percent, to 263,311 from 272,982.

Duncan said a slowdown in small service-sectors starts, which typically require only one or two workers, contributed to the slight overall decline.

The number of workers employed by new companies in the New England states, however, plummeted 29.5 percent to 10,474 in sharp contrast with the region's slight 1.1 percent drop in business starts.

Low unemployment levels and heavy job competition contributed to the regional decline, Duncan said.

Mountain States region

Number of new businesses for the first quarter and percentage change from the same period in 1987.

Montana 134, down 27.6 percent.

Idaho 150, down 19.4 percent.

Wyoming 81, down 25.0 percent.

Colorado 958, down 20.4 percent.

N. Mexico 265, down 12.0 percent.

Arizona 942, down 8.5 percent.

Utah 313, down 28.4 percent.

Nevada 302, up 9.0 percent.