By John S. McClenahen Five of the 10 elements that make up the Conference Board's index of leading economic indicators (LEI) advanced in April. And that was enough to produce a tenth-of-a-percentage-point increase in the closely watched index after two consecutive months of declines. The index of leading indicators now stands at 110.6 (1996=100). "This is consistent with real GDP growth continuing to fluctuate around a 2% to 2.5% average annual rate," says the New York-based business research organization. While several economic forecasts for 2003 fall within that range, the first half of the year has been under-performing it. According to the U.S. Commerce Department's initial estimate, the U.S. economy grew at just a 1.6% inflation-adjusted annual rate during the first calendar quarter of this year. And the economy is probably growing at less than a 2% annual rate in the current quarter. "While we expect the LEI may continue to rise in May as consumer confidence and stock prices are moving higher, we don't think it will be enough to call it a full-fledged recovery," says Gerald D. Cohen, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. In April, the five advancing elements of the leading index were consumer expectations, real money supply, stock prices, the interest rate spread and building permits. Four elements declined: vendor performance, initial unemployment claims, average weekly manufacturing hours and manufacturers' new orders for nondefense capital goods. Manufacturers' new orders for consumer goods and materials were unchanged between March and April. The index of leading indicators suggests what the U.S. will be like about six months ahead.