U.S. Leading Indicators Up, Jobless Claims Down

The Conference Board's index of leading economic indicators for the U.S. now stands at 115.6 (1996=100), following a one-tenth percentage point increase in February. The index fell three-tenths of a percent in January and rose by the same amount in December 2004.

The leading index, an indication of economic direction for the next three to six months, "has now been increasing slightly since last October," notes the Conference Board, a New York-based business research group. The index's current trend, it says, suggests that the U.S. economy will continue to expand, although perhaps more slowly than its long-term annual rate of about 3.5%.

With several private forecasters expecting a growth rate greater than 4% during the current calendar quarter, the slowdown, if it comes, would seem likely to take place during the three remaining quarters of 2005.

Reflecting current U.S. economic strength, first-time claims for unemployment insurance declined last week. For the week ending March 12, the seasonally adjusted figure for initial jobless claims was 318,000, some 10,000 fewer than the revised figure of 328,000 during the previous week, the U.S. Labor Department reported on March 17. The department's four-week moving average of initial claims, often a better indicator of underlying labor market conditions, rose slightly last week to 316,500 from the previous week's revised average of 312,750.

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