updated 10/21/2004 11:50:00 AM ET 2004-10-21T15:50:00

The Index of Leading Economic Indicators, a widely watched barometer of future economic activity, edged lower in September for the fourth month in a row, indicating a slowing in economic growth, a private research group reported Thursday.

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The Conference Board said that its indicator of upcoming activity in the economy fell 0.1 percent last month, following declines of 0.3 percent in August and 0.3 percent in July.

The group said that while the weakness over the last several months in the economy has become more widespread, the declines in the indicator are not yet large enough nor have they lasted long enough to suggest that the current economic expansion is ending.

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

Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein called the September decline a "clear signal that the economy is losing momentum heading into 2005."

Goldstein said that after growing at an annual pace of nearly 4 percent in the third quarter, the economy is likely to grow at a slower pace in the fourth quarter of this year and the first quarter of next year. He said the hurricanes in September and rising energy prices may have held back some sectors in the economy such as home building.

The decline in the Leading Economic Indicators was slightly less than the decline of 0.2 percent that some analysts were expecting. The 10-year Treasury bond, which tends to rise on indications that the economy is cooling, rose 1/8 point in morning trading to yield 3.97 percent, down from 3.99 percent late Wednesday. The Dow Jones industrial average was off 38.64 points at 9,848.29 points.

Separately, the Labor Department also reported Thursday that the number of new people signing up for jobless benefits fell sharply last week, providing a signal that the labor market recovery may be strengthening.

New filings for unemployment insurance declined by a seasonally adjusted 25,000 to 329,000 for the week ending Oct. 16, marking the lowest level since early September and coming in slightly ahead of economists' expectations. Claims had risen by 16,000 in the previous week.

Thursday's report also showed that the number of people continuing to collect unemployment benefits fell by 8,000 to nearly 2.8 million for the week ending Oct. 9, the most recent period for which that information is available. That's an improvement from a year ago, when this figure stood at 3.5 million.

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