Although new orders for durable goods rose unexpectedly in February, the auto industry's participation was limited to a reduction in the decline for new orders.

The seasonally adjusted value of new orders for motor vehicles and parts declined slightly to $24.6 billion, down 0.6% from January. In January, many auto manufacturing plants were shut down, and new orders dropped by 7.6%.

The Census Bureau cautioned that it collects new-order information from parts companies, while assuming constant levels from auto companies, which do not report new orders. Actual shipments of motor vehicles and parts fell by 1.6% in February after falling by 8% in January.

Ford ( F) sales analyst George Pipas says the declines are unsurprising, given the dismal state of auto sales, which appears to be continuing into March. Nevertheless, Pipas said an improvement in durable goods orders, if it continues, is a positive sign for automakers.

"If there is an improvement and if it is sustained over a period of time, that is an indicator of confidence in the economy, which could be a positive for our business and for other people who sell to consumers," he said. "But this tends to be a volatile index, so we're not going to read too much into it."

As for March sales, Pipas said, "They are pretty much as expected; year to year comparisons are going to be similar to what we've been seeing the last two months." In February, Chrysler sales fell 44%, Ford sales fell 48% and General Motors ( F) sales fell 53%. Ward's Automotive Reports has estimated that industry sales may drop 40% in March, with a 43% plunge for the Detroit Three.

Overall, new orders for manufactured durable goods in February increased $5.5 billion, or 3.4%, to $165.6 billion, vs. a 7.3% drop in January, and the expectation for a 2.5% decline. It was the first increase in orders for the big-ticket items in six months. Excluding transportation, new orders rose 3.9% in February, also far better than the expectation for a 2% drop.

In trading Wednesday afternoon, Ford shares were unchanged at $2.86 while shares in GM ( GM) were down 22 cents to $2.98.

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