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Orders to the nation's durable goods manufacturers fell 1.9 percent in April, the third drop in four months, as declining aircraft orders offset an increase in cars and trucks.

The Commerce Department Friday said orders totaled a seasonally adjusted $166 billion, down from $169.3 billion in March.But when the transportation component was excluded, orders rose 1.7 percent, the fourth increase in five months and the largest since a 2.1 percent jump last October.

And the department noted that for the year to date, orders were 3.6 percent above the first four months in 1995.

Orders are considered a key gauge of the nation's manufacturing sector, and an increase could lead to greater production and more jobs.

Durable goods are items such as automobiles and aircraft expected to last more than three years.

Manufacturing has been weak for months and recent reports remain mixed.

Industrial production rebounded in April from an automobile-strike related downturn in March. And the nation's purchasing managers said in a survey that manufacturing strengthened in April for the first time in nine months, although at an extremely slow pace.

But the government reported that manufacturing jobs continued to decline in April, with 17,000 payroll slots lost.

Transportation orders plunged 12.6 percent, unable to sustain a surge in aircraft that resulted in a 14.6 percent gain in March. Motor vehicle orders were up, however.

Defense orders, which contributed to much of March's transportation gain, fell 35.1 percent in April. They had jumped 62.9 percent a month earlier. Excluding the military category, orders were unchanged.

Orders for industrial machinery and equipment rose 0.9 percent but failed to erase a 4.5 percent loss in March. Primary metals orders were up 7 percent after falling 3.7 percent the previous month.

But orders for electronic and other electrical equipment were down 2.7 percent, partially wiping out a 4.8 percent gain in March.

And orders for non-military capital goods excluding aircraft fell in April for a second straight month, down 2.8 percent after falling 1.8 percent in March.

These orders often are a barometer of business plans to expand and modernize and have been a major stimulus to economic growth in recent years.

The backlog of unfilled orders dipped 0.2 percent after rising 1.2 percent in March. It was the first decline since last August. A growing backlog suggests more jobs and longer production lines may be needed to meet demand.

But shipments, a barometer of current activity, rose 1.8 percent in April, the second increase in three months.