By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER
WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ A measure of the U.S. economy's health over the next six months increased in February from January, a sign that growth could be improving.
The Conference Board said Thursday that its index of leading indicators rose 0.5 percent in February to 94.8. That followed an equal gain in January, which was revised higher. The gauge is designed to anticipate economic conditions three to six months out.
The increase was also more broad-based, with eight of its 10 components rising. That compared with only five in January and six in December.A gain in housing permits, a longer manufacturing work week and rising stock prices were among the elements that drove the index higher. Lower orders for large manufactured goods and lower consumer outlook for business conditions limited the gain. The economy "may be developing some resilience against headwinds from ... federal spending cuts," Ataman Ozyildrim, an economist at the Conference Board, said. A steady recovery in housing and rising job gains could be offsetting the cuts, he added. Automatic government spending cuts of $85 billion kicked in March 1, though their impact may not be felt until April and May when layoffs at government agencies and contractors will likely start. The index is derived from data that for the most part have already been reported individually. Other reports issued Thursday also pointed to steady improvement. Weekly unemployment applications rose slightly, but the four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell for the fourth straight time to the lowest level in more than five years. That's a sign companies are laying off fewer workers. As layoffs fall, net hiring usually picks up. Sales of previously occupied homes rose in February to the highest level in more than three years, the National Association of Realtors said in a separate report.