updated 9/23/2004 10:45:41 AM ET 2004-09-23T14:45:41

A closely watched measure of future economic activity fell in August for a third consecutive month, reflecting an uncertain climate for both businesses and consumers.

Major Market Indices

The Conference Board said Thursday its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators fell 0.3 percent in August to 115.7, following a decline of 0.3 percent in July.

The August reading was the third month of decline in the index, after a year in which it gained steady ground. The drop last month was larger than the 0.2 percent decrease forecast by analysts.

“The leading indicators continue to soften,” said Ken Goldstein, an economist for the New York-based Conference Board, a private research group. “Consumers worry about their wages and salaries which could limit spending. Businesses worry about their ability to raise prices and to cover rising costs.”

The index is closely followed because it is designed to forecast the economy’s health over the coming three to six months.

Also Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment insurance rose by a seasonally adjusted 14,000 to 350,000, mostly as a result of the hurricanes that hit Florida.

That left claims at a higher than the 338,000 applications that some analysts were forecasting. But they remain lower than for the same week last year, when claims were at 387,000.

In its report, the Conference Board said seven of the 10 indicators that make up the index declined in August. The included interest rate spread, building permits, the index of consumer expectations, manufacturers’ new orders for nondefense capital goods, vendor performance and stock prices.

The components that rose were manufacturers’ new orders for consumers goods and materials, real money supply and average weekly claims for initial unemployment.

The index of coincident indicators, which measures the current economy, rose 0.2 percent in August to 117.8, with all four of its components increasing, after an identical increase in July.

The index of lagging indicators, which looks back at the past six months, declined 0.1 percent in August to 98.2, with four of its seven components rising.

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