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updated: 4/18/2013 10:42 AM

Measure of U.S. economy's health declines in March

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- A measure of the U.S. economy's future health declined slightly in March, signaling that growth could slow this spring.

The Conference Board says its index of leading indicators dipped 0.1 percent last month to 94.7. That's the first decline after three months of gains. The gauge is designed to anticipate economic conditions three to six months out.

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Declines in consumer confidence, housing permits and new orders for manufactured goods pushed down the index.

Higher stock prices and a larger spread between long-term and short-term interest rates offset the decline.

The index is derived from data that for the most part have already been reported individually.

"Data for March reflect an economy that has lost some steam," said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board.

Across-the-board government spending cuts that kicked in March 1 are likely weighing on growth, Goldstein said. Economists forecast the cuts will shave a half-percentage point from growth this year.

The private sector is also struggling, Goldstein added. "The biggest challenge remains weak demand, due to nervous consumer sentiment and slow income growth," he said.

But overall, "the leading indicator still points to a continuing but slow growth environment," Ataman Ozyildirim, also an economist at the Conference Board, said. The board is a research group with a mostly business membership.

The Leading Indicator index has increase 1.6 percent in the past six months, much faster than the 0.1 percent gain in the previous six months.

Other reports issued Thursday pointed to modest growth. Weekly unemployment applications rose only slightly last week and remained at levels that suggested hiring could rebound in April.

Most economists forecast growth accelerated to an annual rate of roughly 3 percent in the January-March quarter, up from a 0.4 percent rate in the fourth quarter. But many analysts expect growth is slowing in the April-June quarter, mostly because of the spending cuts. Some economists are forecasting a growth rate of 1.5 percent for the second quarter.

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