Leading Index’s Drop Points to Slower U.S. Growth: Economy

The index of U.S. leading indicators unexpectedly declined in March, and manufacturing in the Philadelphia region slowed this month, adding to evidence the economy will cool.

The Conference Board’s gauge of the outlook for the next three to six months fell 0.1 percent last month, the first drop since August, the New York-based group said today. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s factory index eased to 1.3 in April from 2 the prior month, another report showed.

While the world’s largest economy is losing some momentum from the effects of a payroll tax increase and concern over federal budget cuts, there is reason to believe any slump in household spending will prove temporary. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index today showed consumer confidence shot up last week to a five-year high.

“We’re seeing economic growth cool off a little bit after a strong start to the year,” said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina, the top-ranked forecaster for the leading index over the past two years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “There’s no question that growth is going to remain in positive territory.”

Stocks fell, sending the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to the lowest level since March 6, amid disappointing earnings reports. The S&P 500 declined 0.7 percent to 1,541.61 at the close in New York.

Consumers Globally

Consumers are retrenching elsewhere, with another report today showing retail sales in the U.K. fell more than forecast in March as cold weather depressed purchases of clothing and household goods.

In China, a deadly bird-flu outbreak is rippling through industries from restaurants to travel, adding to headwinds after the world’s second-largest economy unexpectedly slowed last quarter.

Shoring up global growth will be a topic of discussion among finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies meeting this week in Washington. A draft of their statement reaffirms a commitment to avoid competitive currency devaluations as nations compete for sales in overseas markets.

The U.S. leading index was projected to rise 0.1 percent in March, according to the median forecast of 48 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. Estimates ranged from a decline of 0.4 percent to an increase of 0.6 percent.

Leading Components

Five of the gauge’s 10 components contributed to the March decrease, including declines in construction applications and factory orders and a drop in consumer expectations. Building permits in March fell 3.9 percent to a four-month low 902,000 annualized rate, the Commerce Department said this week.

“Data for March reflect an economy that has lost some steam,” Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, said in a statement today. “The biggest challenge remains weak demand, due to nervous consumer sentiment and slow income growth.”

The decline in the Philadelphia Fed’s factory index this month reflected a drop in orders that prompted managers to cut back on hiring and inventories. The reading exceeded zero, signaling manufacturing in the area covering eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware is still growing. The median forecast of economists surveyed projected the gauge would increase to 3.

Manufacturing Cooling

The data follow a report last week showing expansion also cooled at factories in the New York region. This week, separate data from the Federal Reserve indicated output at factories is moderating as companies limit inventories.

Siemens AG, Europe’s biggest engineering company, is among companies that anticipate further growth in the economy. Siemens made 21.3 percent of its revenue from the U.S. in fiscal year 2012.

“In the long run, we see a good business climate there, although currently it is a little bit bumpy,” Siegfried Russwurm, head of Siemens’ industry division, said in an April 11 industry teleconference.

The U.S. economy is projected to grow at a 1.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter, down from an estimated 3 percent pace in the first three months of the year, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists from April 5 to April 9.

Payroll Tax

One reason for the projected slowdown: Americans are starting to feel the pinch of the increase in the payroll tax that took effect in January. The levy used to fund Social Security reverted to 6.2 percent at the start of the year from 4.2 percent.

Retail sales dropped in March by the most in nine months, figures from the Commerce Department showed last week. At the same time, a jump in stock prices to fresh records last week gave American households a reason for optimism.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index climbed to minus 29.2 in the week ended April 14, the highest since January 2008, from minus 34 during the prior period, another report showed today.

The biggest surge in more than a year was broad-based, with every age group, all regions and most income brackets showing an advance.

All three comfort index components improved last week, with one turning positive. The personal finances gauge rose to 1.6, its highest level since July, from minus 2.9 the prior week.

“We’re on the upward curve now,” Glenna Blackwell, a 58-year-old from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, said as she browsed a Macy’s Inc. department store in downtown Washington.

Feeling ‘Better’

Blackwell, who is visiting the nation’s capital both for business and as a tourist, said she was “feeling a little bit better than I did a few months ago.”

The measure assessing Americans’ views on the current state of the economy climbed to minus 54.7, the highest since late January 2008. The index of whether consumers consider it a good time to buy improved to a four-month high of minus 34.6.

Another report today showed the labor market was stabilizing. The number of claims for jobless benefits climbed to 352,000 in the week ended April 13, little changed from the prior week, according to figures from the Labor Department.

“Businesses at least need the workers they have and probably could use some more,” said Tom Simons, an economist at Jefferies LLC in New York, who projected claims would rise to 350,000. “Claims will probably stay in this range for some time.”

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