NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Industrial companies are better positioned today than they were during the recession and should be able to weather an economic downturn without posting a steep drop in profits, Oppenheimer said in a research note Tuesday.

Analyst Christopher Wiggins said that in contrast to 2008, companies now have lower inventories, improved cost structures, stronger balance sheets and better access to cash.

"It is our opinion that a re-do of the most recent recession is unlikely," Wiggins wrote. "We believe companies remain in better shape versus the prior downturn, which if anything, should support more resilient earnings versus the deep cuts to industrials in late 2008."

The latest economic data, released Tuesday, appears to support that case.

Factory output increased 0.6 percent last month, according to the Federal Reserve. That's the biggest increase since the March 11 earthquake in Japan, which disrupted supply chains and limited output by some U.S. auto plants.

The auto industry accounted for nearly all of the increase. Motor vehicles and parts jumped 5.2 percent. Excluding that category, factory output grew only 0.2 percent.

Overall industrial production jumped 0.9 percent â¿¿ the biggest increase this year. Unusually hot weather in July drove demand for energy generated by utilities. Mining output also increased.

The analyst said his top long-term picks in the sector are Idex Corp., which makes the Jaws of Life rescue equipment and other products, and Danaher Corp., which makes medical and industrial instruments. Both companies offer the best track records when it comes to tough economies and come with the least amount of risk, he said.

Wiggins also pointed to ESCO Technologies Inc., an engineered products supplier, and Tetra Tech Inc., an engineering and construction consultant for water and energy projects, as strong players in the sector.

The shares of both companies have probably taken bigger hits to their shares than is warranted, Wiggins said, because of worries about a possible decline in public and municipal spending.

Investors should not be discouraged by soft manufacturing data, Wiggins said, because it is to be expected during an economic recovery.

In midday trading, Idex shares fell 27 cents to $37.03; Danaher fell 24 cents to $44.48; Tetra Tech lost 21 cents to $19.71; and ESCO dropped 15 cents to $28.87.

Elsewhere in the sector, Graco Inc. shares fell 45 cents to $39.32 and Douglas Dynamics Inc. dropped 27 cents, or 2 percent, to $13.12.

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