ByJohn S. McClenahen The battered Nasdaq stock index and recent reports from the National Assn. of Purchasing Management might lead you to believe that the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy was on the verge of recession and that high-tech firms would be pulling it down into the economic trough. Not so, suggest fresh numbers from the Federal Reserve. Overall industrial production rose two-tenths of a percent in September while the manufacturing component did even better, rising three-tenths of a percent. "Technology production rose a robust 2.5% in September and accounted for the entire 0.3% gain for manufacturing production," notes Stan Shipley, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. "The major surprise was [a] slowdown in equipment output, which rose by only 0.3%," says economist Gordon Richards at the National Assn. of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington. "However, this number was downwardly biased by transportation equipment, and all the other components of business equipment showed strong increases," he interjects. "The U.S. economy remains in fundamentally fine shape," contends Bruce Steinberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch. "The equity market appears to be fearing something much worse than reality will probably deliver," he observes. "Simply put, growth is easing downward, but still going forward," says NAM's Richards. "All things considered, the [U.S.] economy is probably looking at a healthy 3% to 3.5% growth in the fourth quarter" of 2000, he states.