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The November book-to-bill ratio, a measure of health for the chip-equipment industry, posted a tiny gain over last month's levels. The ratio reached 0.79, a hair's breadth above the revised October figure of 0.78, according to the trade group Semiconductor Equipment Manufacturing International.

That figure means that in October, $79 worth of new orders were received for every $100 or product billed for the month.

The trade group SEMI also reported that, on the basis of a three-month average, global orders in November totaled $779 million, slightly above October levels of $775 million.

While far from healthy, the new book-to-bill number is better than some were expecting. For example, Banc of America's Mark FitzGerald forecast a November book-to-bill ratio of about 0.69, representing a slide from the initial October reading of 0.73. Still, the latest ratio is likely to be revised, possibly to the downside.

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And while the book-to-bill ratio is a backward-looking indicator, there's reason to believe

chipmakers will stay cautious about buying new equipment, given that capital spending is expected to increase only a few percent next year.

"The current booking levels, down from highs earlier in the year, reflect the uncertainty facing the semiconductor industry as the new year approaches, although the overall mood in the industry is that conditions will improve in 2003," said SEMI CEO Stanley Myers in a statement.

SEMI said it expects the global equipment market to grow 15% in 2003, following two years of sharp contractions, but most analysts are less optimistic.