updated 4/17/2008 11:10:45 AM ET 2008-04-17T15:10:45

A private business groups said Friday its index of leading economic indicators rose last month, reversing five months of decline. But the indicators are down significantly from a year ago, leaving recession fears festering.

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A weak business outlook report by the Philadelphia Fed added to pessimism on Wall Street.

The New York-based Conference Board said its forecast of future economic activity rose 0.1 percent in March, compared to a 0.3 percent decline in February. Economists had expected a 0.2 percent March increase.

The index is designed to forecast economic activity in the next three to six months based on 10 economic components, including stock prices, building permits and initial claims for unemployment benefits.

“This is one step up after five steps down,” said Michael Gregory, senior economist for BMO Nesbitt Burns, a Toronto investment bank.

The 3.3 percent annual rate of decline in the index since last March “is the kind of result, that whenever we’ve seen it in the past, the U.S. economy has been heading into a recession,” Gregory said. “The recession signal here is clear and unequivocal.”

The Conference Board said another of its indexes, which measures current economic activity, has also deteriorated in recent months, with weakness becoming more widespread among the components of both indexes. “The current behavior of the composite indexes suggests economic weakness is likely to continue in the near term,” it said in a press release.

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