updated 1/29/2008 10:44:13 AM ET 2008-01-29T15:44:13

Orders to factories for big-ticket manufactured goods soared in December by the largest amount in five months, welcome news for an economy buffeted by talk of recession.

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The 5.2 percent increase in orders was a surprise finish for the manufacturing sector at year’s end — a segment of the economy considered to have had a poor year.

The increase in orders, as reported Tuesday by the Commerce Department, was far larger than had been expected. The strength came from a big increase in demand for commercial aircraft, but even excluding the transportation sector, orders posted a solid 2.6 percent gain.

The December orders increase was more than double what had been expected. Analysts were looking for a much weaker performance, given that a key gauge of manufacturing activity had fallen to the weakest reading since April 2003. The Institute for Supply Management manufacturing index dipped to 47.7 for December. Any reading below 50 is considered recession territory for manufacturing.

The unexpectedly big jump in December closed out a lackluster year for manufacturers. Orders for the total year managed to rise by just 0.97 percent following much bigger increases of 6.31 percent in 2006 and 9.45 percent in 2005. It was the poorest showing since orders actually fell by 3.17 percent in 2002, a year when the country was still struggling to emerge from the 2001 recession.

The strength in December was led by an 11.3 percent rise in demand for transportation products. That reflected an 11.3 percent jump in orders for commercial aircraft which offset a 2.3 percent fall in demand for autos and auto parts as automakers continue to struggle with weak demand as gasoline prices have surged.

A key category of business investment, non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, rose by 4.4 percent in December, the first increase in this closely watched category since September, and the biggest increase since last March.

The unexpectedly big jump in December closed out a lackluster year for manufacturers. Orders for the total year managed to rise by just 0.97 percent following much bigger increases of 6.31 percent in 2006 and 9.45 percent in 2005. It was the poorest showing since orders actually fell by 3.17 percent in 2002, a year when the country was still struggling to emerge from the 2001 recession.

The strength in December was led by an 11.3 percent rise in demand for transportation products. That reflected an 11.3 percent jump in orders for commercial aircraft which offset a 2.3 percent fall in demand for autos and auto parts as automakers continued to struggle with weak demand amid soaring gasoline prices.

A key category of business investment, non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, rose by 4.4 percent in December, the first increase in this closely watched category since September, and the biggest increase since last March.

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