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Orders for expensive durable goods fell slightly in February, the Commerce Department said Wednesday, as defense orders kept declining and demand weakened for industrial machinery and electrical equipment.

Last month's 0.1 percent decrease in orders followed a revised 2.4 percent rise in January that previously was reported as a 2.2 percent gain.The February decline was contrary to Wall Street economists' expectations of a 1 percent rise in orders.

The value of total new orders fell during February to a seasonally adjusted $120.5 billion from $120.6 billion in January. Durable goods are items like cars and refrigerators that are intended to last three years or more.

Orders peaked more than three years ago at a monthly value of $134.4 billion in December 1988, department officials said.

Orders for defense goods, which have experienced exceptionally wide swings recently, dropped by 19.4 percent last month after a 20 percent fall in January and an 89.4 percent jump in December.

Excluding defense, total durable goods orders increased by 1.3 percent in February after rising by 4.4 percent in December.

Durable goods orders are a useful gauge of the economy's health because they are expensive and take longer to manufacture. Economists say durable goods orders measure both demand and future employment prospects, especially in manufacturing industries.