Big-ticket manufactured goods post disappointing increase

Thursday, March 29, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Orders to factories for big-ticket manufactured goods posted a disappointing increase in February that raised new worries about the strength of the economy.

Demand for durable goods increased by 2.5 percent in February, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. It was a weaker-than-expected rebound from a huge 9.3 percent drop in orders that occurred in January.

That January decline jolted financial markets around the world and contributed to a 416-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average Feb. 27 as investors grew more worried about a possible recession this year.

In the new reports, analysts were especially concerned about continued weakness in business investment, which fell by 1.2 percent in February, the fourth decline in the past five months.

This category, which covers non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, is viewed as a proxy for business plans to expand and modernize.

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said Wednesday that the Fed still expected business investment to grow at a moderate pace this year, but he said there was a risk that recent weakness in business investment will persist.

"Thus far, the weakness in housing and in some parts of manufacturing does not appear to have spilled over to any significant degree to other sectors of the economy," Bernanke told members of the Joint Economic Committee.

He said the economy should continue expanding at a moderate pace in coming quarters, but he cautioned that this forecast faced "a number of risks." They include the threat that the housing correction could be more severe than expected, possibly aggravated by problems beginning to emerge in subprime mortgage lending.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average fell nearly 100 points on Wednesday, reflecting concerns about the weak manufacturing report, rising oil prices and Bernanke's comments about continued inflation worries.

The Dow closed down 96.93 points at 12,300.36, marking the third straight declining session.

The 2.5 percent increase in orders for durable goods was led by a 9.6 percent rise in demand for transportation products. Orders for commercial airplanes were up 88.4 percent after Boeing Co. reported 57 new plane orders in February, up from 13 in January. Orders also rose 1.3 percent in the troubled auto industry.

But outside of transportation, there was widespread weakness. Orders excluding transportation were down 0.1 percent, the fourth decline in the past five months. Demand was down for steel and other primary metals, for machinery and for appliances, a drop that reflected the weakness in housing.

Orders for computers and communication equipment were up.

Overall, the 2.5 percent increase was the largest since a 3.5 percent rise in December and pushed orders to a seasonally adjusted total of $206.9 billion in February.

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