By John S. McClenahen Excluding semiconductors, new orders for manufactured goods increased 0.4% ($1.4 billion) to $318.5 billion in March, slightly better than the 0.3% increase that economists generally anticipated. However, U.S. Commerce Department data also show factory orders for the first three months of this year running 5.5% lower than those in the first quarter of 2001 and 0.3% below the fourth-quarter 2001 level. Also excluding semiconductors, manufacturing inventories, which have fallen for 14 consecutive months, declined 0.6% in March of this year to $431.5 billion. Major semiconductor producers, claiming the market practices robs their numbers of credibility, are not currently reporting their new order, inventory, unfilled order and shipment data to the Commerce Department. Meanwhile, for the first time in about a month, initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits fell in the week ending April 27. The seasonally adjusted figure was 418,000, a decrease of 10,000 from the previous week's 428,000. The U.S. Labor Department's four-week moving average for jobless claims was 435,750, some 18,500 less than the previous week's revised average of 454,250.