Compiled By John S. McClenahen The biggest danger in October's reported $16.5 billion drop in U.S. personal incomes is in overinterpreting the figure, asserts Gordon Richards, chief economist at the National Assn. of Manufacturers, Washington. "The income data were distorted by one-time factors, mainly [a sharp drop in] federal agricultural subsidies, which made the report look worse than it actually is," he says. Indeed, if the distortions are excluded, "then wage and salary disbursements, which are a better indicator of the trend in personal incomes, actually increased by $30.6 billion." Richards' bottom line: Hampered somewhat by relatively high debt, consumers won't be spending as freely for Christmas this year. However, the buying season won't be terrible, either.