Job growth in Utah should see healthy gains during the next two quarters as business conditions continue to strengthen, according to a report released Tuesday.

The Mountain States Business Conditions Index for Colorado, Utah and Wyoming was 61.7 in February, up from from January's 60.3. In Utah, the index leaped to 65.6 from January's vigorous 62.5 and December's 63.3

The index ranges from zero to 100, with a figure greater than 50 indicating an expansionary economy over the next three to six months. It is formulated by the Creighton Economic Forecasting Group at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., using the same methodology that the Institute for Supply Management uses for its national index.

The national index, also released Tuesday, declined to 55.3 in February, from a revised reading of 56.4 in January. The February figure was below the reading of 57 anticipated by analysts.

Norbert J. Ore, chairman of the institute's survey committee, said that "while the overall rate of growth is slowing, the overall picture is improving as price increases and shortages are becoming less of a problem."

While most indices in the report grew at a slower pace in February, exports rose faster — a trend that reflects the impact of the weaker dollar, which has even led some manufacturers in Canada and Europe to shift production from their home countries to the United States, according to Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, N.C.

"Exports are likely to become more important this year," Vitner said.

The Creighton University report showed opposite movement in the three-state region, where imports hit a February reading of 66.7, unchanged from January, while new export orders fell dramatically to 59.1 from January's 70.

However, Ernie Goss, Creighton economics professor and author of the regional report, wrote that "our survey indicates that the nation will likely continue to experience high trade deficits contributing to further weakening in the dollar.

"While rising energy prices, higher short-term interest rates and international political tensions reduced February confidence, it remained at a reasonably high 66.7, indicating optimism about economic growth for the next six to nine months," Goss wrote.

Utah's manufacturing sector reflected growing confidence. New orders registered a robust 75, with production at 75.4, inventories at 62.5 and employment at 62.5. The only black mark was delivery speed, at 37.5.

Overall, though, Goss predicted that the business climate will remain positive in 2005, particularly with regard to job growth.

"While Utah will not add jobs at its 1995-96 pace, the job growth will be among the top in the nation for the next two quarters," Goss wrote.

Colorado's index was 51.7, down from January's 51.9, while Wyoming's survey result declined slightly to 71.7 from January's impressive 72.8, according to the Creighton report.

In the three-state region, the February confidence remained at 66.7, indicating optimism about economic growth for the next six to nine months. Other strong readings for February included new orders at 62.5 and production at 69.

In other economic news, the federal government reported Tuesday that construction spending rose a strong 0.7 percent in January as low mortgage rates continued to bolster home building and nonresidential construction climbed to the highest level in more than two years.

The increase, reported by the Commerce Department, pushed total construction activity to a record high of $1.05 trillion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate and followed an even larger 1.2 percent rise in December. Analysts had been forecasting a slightly smaller increase given the huge gain in December.


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com