Most forecasters expect mortgage originations to decline slightly this year from last year's level, estimated at just under $800 billion. But a generally strong year is still expected by just about everybody, with forecasts clustering around $720 billion.

Is there any chance that the economy could surprise everybody and generate another $800 billion year? There are certainly some bright spots, but a repeat of 1996 would be a big order. Here's why:

*Long-term interest rates would have to slip a bit further and stay down for the whole year.

*For this to happen, the economy may have to show some signs of weakness.

*Housing demand would have to extend its skein of remarkable strength for yet another year, even in the face of a slack economy.

The average rate for 30-year loans made during the last full week of 1996 was 7.64%, down from 7.74% a week earlier - but still substantially ahead of the 7.11% a year earlier. "Interest rates remained fairly stable and very affordable in 1996, averaging 7.81% for the year," said Arnold Kling, principal economist at Freddie Mac, formally the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.

In the first quarter of 1996, the industry had a boomlet in refinancings that swelled volume for the year as rates reached a low of 6.65% in a Freddie Mac survey. Though refinancings are presently brisk, they are nowhere near the level of early last year, and with rates still well ahead of last year's, no new boomlet is in sight.

Furthermore, there is little prospect that rates will continue to fall. Most observers believe the Fed will push rates up early this year to offset some signs of heat in the economy. And if they are wrong, the Fed most likely will simply go with the status quo.

Meanwhile, most housing economists are expecting some slackening in housing starts.

The positive developments:

A big influx of first-time homebuyers among immigrants and among second- generation Asian Americans has been detected, according to Stan Ross, managing partner of E&Y Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group, Los Angeles.

"We also saw a surge in Hispanic homebuyers and an increase in nonnuclear buyers: singles, divorcees, gay and single couples, and marrieds without children," Mr. Ross said.

He added that he expects high-end homes to come on strong this year because of the surge in the stock market.

So it's possible that this year's loan volume could benefit from demand that is not highly sensitive to interest rates: trade-ups by the affluent and shelter demand from immigrants.

A change in the tax laws could also help. Mr. Ross says a new capital gain treatment may be enacted that would allow homeowners, regardless of age, to exclude the first $500,000 of profit from the sale of a home every two years. But a big boost to home sales this year seems unlikely.

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