updated 3/17/2005 11:37:44 AM ET 2005-03-17T16:37:44

An index designed to forecast future economic activity rose a middling 0.1 percent in February after a decline of 0.3 percent in January, the Conference Board reported on Thursday.

Major Market Indices

Still, the February increase was the third in the last four months, and Conference Board economist Kenneth Goldstein said the trend was “pointing to (economic) growth this spring.”

The business-financed research group said its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators advanced to 115.6 in February from 115.5 the previous month. The index had risen 0.3 percent in both November and December.

Goldstein said the statistics were “reflecting an economy that is continuing to improve.”

The index is designed to predict economic activity over the next three to six months.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Labor Department reported that the number of new people signing up for unemployment benefits last week declined for the first time in a month — an encouraging sign that the jobs market may be gaining traction.

The department said new applications for unemployment insurance dropped a seasonally adjusted 10,000 to 318,000 for the week ending March 12. The level of 318,000 was the lowest since late February.

The last time new filings for jobless benefits fell was in the week ending Feb. 12, when they dipped by 1,000.

The 318,000 level of claims — while slightly higher than the 315,000 that some economists were forecasting — still pointed to a gradually improving labor market. A year ago, new claims stood at 333,000.

The economy added 262,000 jobs in February, the most since October. That information contained in an employment report released earlier this month raised hopes that the labor market may be picking up some decent momentum.

The Conference Board said that five of the 10 components of the leading index contributed to February’s rise: a decline in unemployment insurance claims, stock prices, the money supply, vendor performance and manufacturers’ orders for consumer goods and materials.

Negative contributors were average weekly manufacturing hours, the interest rate spread, building permits and the index of consumer expectations. Manufacturers’ new orders for capital goods held steady.

The index of coincident indicators, designed to measure current activity, advanced 0.4 percent in February to 119.6 after dropping 0.6 percent in January to 119.1. The index of lagging indicators was up 0.4 percent at 99.6 in February after a gain of 1 percent in January to 99.2.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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