updated 8/24/2005 1:30:59 PM ET 2005-08-24T17:30:59

Orders to U.S. factories for costly manufactured goods fell in July by the largest amount in 18 months, underscoring the occasionally erratic pace of recovery from the 2001 recession in the manufacturing sector.

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The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that new bookings for “durable” goods — big-ticket items expected to last at least three years — declined by 4.9 percent in July from the previous month.

It marked the biggest drop since January 2004, when durable-goods orders fell by 5.7 percent.

The last time durable-goods orders fell was in March. Since then, manufacturers have been seeing bookings go up. In June, orders went up by 1.9 percent.

Manufacturers were hardest hit by the recession and they struggled mightily to get back to good health. Analysts believe the factory sector has shown much improvement and is in good shape, although factory employment is still weak and there can be ups and downs in bookings from month to month.

The weakness seen in July hit a broad range of categories, including machinery, computers, communications equipment, electrical equipment and appliances, and airplanes. That more than offset stronger demand for automobiles and parts, and primary metals, a category that includes steel.

The decline in July was steeper than analysts were predicting. Before the release of the report, economists were forecasting a drop in durable-goods orders of around 1.2 percent.

Excluding orders for transportation equipment, which can swing widely from month to month, all other durable-goods orders fell by 3.2 percent in July. That compared with a 3.6 percent increase in June.

Shipments, a good barometer of current demand, dipped by 0.1 percent in July, after growing by 0.3 percent in June.

Factories, big energy users, have had to cope with surging energy bills. Oil prices climbed to an all-time closing high of $67.10 a barrel on Aug. 12.

Wanting to make sure high energy prices don’t spark a broader outbreak of inflation, the Federal Reserve earlier this month boosted short-term interest rates for a 10th time since June 2004. Another rate increase is expected at the Fed’s next meeting, Sept. 20.

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