updated 3/18/2004 10:22:55 AM ET 2004-03-18T15:22:55

A closely watched indicator of future economic activity remained unchanged in February, but at a high enough level to signal more strength in the economy and job growth on the horizon, a private research group reported Thursday.

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The Conference Board said that its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators held steady at 115.1 last month, following a downwardly revised gain of 0.4 percent in January. The report was in line with what analysts were expecting.

The indicator, which forecasts trends in the economy over the next three to six months, remains 3.3 percent above its previous peak reached in May 2002.

The Conference Board said that six of the 10 elements of the leading index increased in February.

The group also reported that its coincident index, a snapshot of the current state of the economy, rose by 0.3 percent in February, following a downwardly revised 0.1 percent gain in each of the prior two months.

Ken Goldstein, the Conference Board’s economist, said that the continued strong levels of consumption and investment should begin to result in stronger job growth.

“What is unusual about the current business cycle, however, is the delay between the strengthening economy and the hiring of new workers,” Goldstein said. He said that hiring should start to improve, barring a “major disruption in the economy.”

The Conference Board, a private business and research group, said that while its leading index remained unchanged in February, there were upward revisions to previous months. The indicator is now rising at an annual rate of 3 percent to 4 percent, and the growth continues to be broadly spread through the economy.

The coincident index has now grown at about a 2 percent annual rate from its most recent low in April 2003, the group reported. The growth in that indicator has also been broadly based, including sectors such as production, sales income and employment.

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