WASHINGTON (AP) _ Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowen, who wrote about business and the nation's economic policies for five decades, died of prostate cancer Thursday. He was 76.

``Bart taught a generation of business journalists here and around the country how to cover economic policy in a more sophisticated way,'' said David Ignatius, the Post's assistant managing editor for business.

In a recent speech, Rowen recalled the days when business reporting was ``a true backwater of the news,'' and said, ``Today, things have changed for the better.''

Rowen helped bring about that change, Ignatius said. A passionate advocate of free trade, Rowen focused on the United States' place in the global economy; his columns pushed both his fellow reporters and politicians to look at the larger picture.

In his last column, on March 26, Rowen wrote about Republican presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan: ``He would turn the clock back to a simpler era when America could ignore the rest of the world _ except that such a world exists only in the Buchanan fantasy.''

Rowen, who covered presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, relished his role as critic of government economic policies, said his son, Daniel Rowen.

``He was always someone who spoke for the common good, for the well-being of the common man,'' he said. ``And he loved being right.''

A native of Burlington, Vt., Rowen graduated from City College of New York in 1938 and started his career as a copy boy for the New York Journal of Commerce. He became the paper's Washington correspondent in 1941. During World War II, he served in the information division of the War Production Board.

He then worked as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine, where he wrote his first syndicated column, and served as the magazine's Business Trends editor before joining the Post in 1966. As assistant managing editor for finance he built up the Post's coverage of national and international financial news.

``When Bart came the business news department had four people; when he left as assistant managing editor in 1975 it had 30 roughly,'' Ignatius said. In 1975, Rowen returned to writing full time for the Post.

He also has served as commentator for public television's ``Nightly Business Report'' and wrote many books and magazine articles.

Rowen won numerous awards for his column. He received the first awards for lifetime achievement in financial journalism presented by the Gerald R. Loeb Foundation and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

The society called his column ``one of the most influential opinion pieces being written.''

``Bart Rowen followed economics policy like a detective and wrote about it with passion and purpose,'' said Jonathan Wolman, Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press. ``His column was must reading at Treasury and the White House for a generation.''

Rowen's most recent book, published last year, ``Self-Inflicted Wounds: From LBJ's Guns & Butter to Reagan's Voodoo Economics,'' recounted his career and outlined his views on economic policy.

Rowen, who lived in Somerset, Md., is survived by his wife, Alice Stadler Rowen, and three children: Judith Vereker, James Rowen and Daniel Rowen.

Funeral services are scheduled Monday at Temple Sinai in Washington, and the family said memorial contributions may be made to the temple.