By John S. McClenahen Excluding semiconductors, inventories held by U.S. manufacturers, retailers and merchant wholesalers were an estimated $1.125 trillion at the end of July, says the U.S. Commerce Department's Economics & Statistical Administration. The July figure was 0.4% higher than June's mark of $1.119 trillion and better than both Merrill Lynch & Co.'s forecast for a 0.3% rise in July and the consensus forecast for a 0.1% increase. The July inventory increase -- coupled with a 0.3% rise in June -- could be good news for the U.S. economy if business buying also continues to increase. In July, business sales were an estimated $832.8 billion, up 1.2% from June, the Commerce data show. At the end of July the inventories-to-sales ratio was 1.35, down from 1.36 in June.