updated 2/24/2006 8:45:43 AM ET 2006-02-24T13:45:43

Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods fell by the largest amount in 5½ years in January as demand for commercial aircraft suffered the biggest setback in seven years, the government reported Friday.

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The Commerce Department said that orders for durable goods, everything from computers to cars, fell by 10.2 percent last month, a much bigger decline than had been expected.

The weakness was led by a 68.2 percent drop in orders for commercial aircraft reflecting a falloff in sales at Boeing Corp. after two very strong months. Analysts said the overall decline overstated the weakness in manufacturing because it was so heavily influenced by the volatile aircraft sector.

Excluding airplanes, cars and other transportation products, orders posted a solid 0.6 percent rise after an even larger 1.9 percent increase in December.

While the economy slowed dramatically to a growth rate of just 1.1 percent in the final three months of last year, economists are looking for a sizable rebound in the first three months of 2006, with some forecasting growth will top 5 percent at an annual rate.

Part of that strength is expected to come from manufacturing, which is expected to do well as businesses, bolstered by rising sales and strong profits, step up spending to expand and modernize.

Orders for non-defense capital goods, considered a good barometer of business investment plans, fell by 20 percent in January. However, most of that weakness reflected the drop in airplane orders. Excluding aircraft, non-defense capital spending was down a more modest 0.4 percent following a big 5 percent jump in December.

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