updated 5/26/2004 9:27:14 AM ET 2004-05-26T13:27:14

Orders to factories for big-ticket goods fell sharply in April after posting a strong gain in the previous month, reflecting the sometimes bumpy recovery navigated by the nation’s manufacturers.

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The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that orders for “durables” — costly manufactured goods expected to last at least three years — dropped by 2.9 percent last month, marking the biggest decline since September 2002.

But April’s slackening in demand for big-ticket goods came after sizable gains in February and March, where orders went up by 3.9 percent and a strong 5.7 percent, respectively.

Economists were predicting a drop in orders for April given the robust demand in March, but they were forecasting a smaller, 0.8 percent decline.

While the larger than expected drop was disappointing, it’s likely to be viewed as a temporary rough patch, rather than a harbinger of an unraveling of the recovery in the manufacturing sector.

Other recent reports, including one released by the Federal Reserve earlier this month, suggested that manufacturing activity was healthy in April.

Even so, manufacturers, hardest hit by the 2001 recession, have struggled mightily over the last three years to get back on firm footing, a journey that has had its up and downs.

Still, the overall, national economy is growing solidly. And with inflation starting to creep, a growing number of economists believe Federal Reserve policy-makers might order their first interest rate increase in more than four years next month. Others, however, are forecasting a rate rise in August or later.

The Fed’s main short-term interest rate used to influence economic activity now stands at a 46-year low of 1 percent.

In Wednesday’s report, the decline was led by a 4.7 percent drop in demand for transportation equipment, including cars and airplanes. Factories saw demand for those products increase by 4.1 percent in March.

Orders also fell in April for machinery, primary metals, including steel, and fabricated metal products. Orders for communications equipment, computers, electrical equipment and appliances, however, all posted solid gains.

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