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Economic indicator rose in March

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Deseret Morning News graphic

NEW YORK — An indicator of future economic activity nudged higher in March, adding to a growing body of data suggesting that the recovery is gaining strength.

The Conference Board, a private research group, reported Monday that its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose 0.3 percent in March, following no change in February and a 0.4 percent rise in January.

The indicator is seen as a gauge of economic activity over the next six months or so. Six of the index's 10 elements rose last month, including real money supply, building permits and new orders for consumer goods to manufacturers.

The report was in line with what analysts were expecting. Investors seemed relieved that there was no greater-than-expected surge in the index, which might have fanned fears of higher interest rates. The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 14.12 to close at 10,437.85 on Monday.

The Conference Board also reported that its indicator of current economic activity rose for the seventh straight month in March, indicating that economic momentum was remaining strong going into the second quarter.

"The economy looks like it's picking up steam," said Standard & Poor's economist David Wyss. "And if this is a standard U-shaped recovery" — with a long bottoming-out period — "we should be getting to the steep part of the upward curve."

The upturn in the leading index in March left the indicator 4.4 percent higher than its most recent low in March 2003, though the group noted that growth in the indicator had "slowed somewhat in recent months."

The Conference Board noted that its indicator of current economic conditions, its Coincident Index, rose 0.2 percent in March, continuing its steady advance, and that the strength in current conditions had been solidifying in recent months and was taking a wider hold in various parts of the economy.

Three of the four elements of the Coincident Index were higher in March, including personal income, non-agricultural employment and manufacturing. The only lagging element was industrial production.

Josh Feinman, chief economist at Deutsche Asset Management, said the latest leading indicators report was "consistent with continued economic expansion."

"There's nothing in there that would alter the overall thrust of the data, which is that the economy is continuing to expand and will move ahead at a pretty good clip, at least in the near term," Feinman said.

Combined with other recent economic measurements, the report pointed to more steady growth in the economy. The Conference Board said in its report that the current rate of growth in its leading index suggested "a continuation of relatively strong economic growth in the near term."

Other positive readings on the economy were released last week, including strong measures of housing construction and retail spending for March. Employment, which had lagged behind other areas of the economy, also seemed to turn around.

Wyss called March a "blowout" month, saying that "everything came in stronger than expected. Maybe there's hope for the Red Sox after all."