updated 7/22/2004 10:49:19 AM ET 2004-07-22T14:49:19

A closely watched gauge of future economic activity declined last month for the first time in more than a year, falling short of analysts' expectations.

Major Market Indices

The Conference Board said Thursday its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators dropped 0.2 percent in June to 116.2 following rises of 0.4 percent in May, 0.1 percent in April and 0.8 percent in March. Analysts had been expecting the index to remain flat in June.

It was the first time the index has declined since March 2003.

Ken Goldstein, economist for the Conference Board, said the data showed slowing momentum for the economy in June as the real estate market cooled off and retail and vehicle sales slowed.

"Strong economic performance in May gave way to a weaker June," Goldstein said. "Although the leading index declined in June it is still about 3.4 percent higher in the second quarter than in the first."

The index is closely watched because it is designed to predict the economy's path in the next three to six months.

Brian G. Belski, fundamental market strategist at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray, said it was really no surprise that the economy slowed somewhat in June, even if the trend was a little stronger than analysts had expected.

“We were looking for the economy to moderate a little bit. We had such a snapback type of recovery,” Belski said.

Belski interpreted the pullback in June as a positive sign, saying “we don’t want to see any overheating.”

Also on Thursday, the government reported that the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell slightly last week, indicating that the labor market is showing signs of improvement.

The Labor Department reported that 339,000 newly laid-off workers showed up at state unemployment offices for the week ending July 17, down by 11,000 from the previous week.

The Conference Board, which is based in New York, said that five of 10 indicators that make up the index increased in June. They were: Consumer expectations, stock prices, a measure of unemployment insurance claims, manufacturers' new orders for nondefense capital goods and manufacturers' new orders for consumer goods and materials.

The negative contributors were building permits, manufacturing hours, vendor performance, real money supply and interest rate spread.

The index of coincident indicators, which tracks current economic performance, rose 0.1 percent in June after advancing 0.3 percent to 117.6 in May.

The index of lagging indicators was unchanged in June after rising 0.1 percent in May.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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