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Thursday, January 21, 2010 8:06:18 AM

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Leading Economic Index in U.S. Probably Rose for Ninth Month Share Business ExchangeTwitterFacebook| Email | Print | A A A
By Timothy R. Homan

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The index of U.S. leading indicators probably rose in December for a ninth straight month, signaling the economy will keep growing through the first half of the year, economists said before a report today.

The Conference Board’s gauge of the outlook for the next three to six months rose 0.7 percent after a 0.9 percent November gain, according to the median forecast of 56 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. Other reports today may show fewer Americans filed for jobless benefits last week and Philadelphia-area manufacturing expanded for a fifth month.

Fewer firings, rising stock prices and efforts by the Federal Reserve to keep short-term interest rates low probably boosted the leading index and may help keep Americans spending. Faster economic growth will hinge on sustained employment gains that have yet to materialize.

“The U.S. recovery remains on track,” said Michelle Meyer, an economist at Barclays Capital Inc. in New York. “The sharp upturn in growth over the next two quarters” should “lead to a sustainable recovery,” she said.

The report from the Conference Board, a New York-based private research group, is due at 10 a.m. New York time. Survey estimates ranged from gains of 0.3 percent to 1.1 percent.

Figures from the Fed Bank of Philadelphia at the same time may show its factory index registered a reading of 18 this month, down from December’s four-year high of 22.5, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed. Readings above zero signal manufacturing growth in the region.

Jobless Claims

Data from the Labor Department at 8:30 a.m. may show 440,000 workers filed claims for unemployment insurance last week, down from 444,000 the prior week, according to the median forecast. Claims fell to 432,000 during the last week of December, the lowest level since July 2008.

The world’s largest economy will probably expand at a 2.7 percent annual pace from January through March and at a 2.9 percent rate in the following quarter, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed earlier this month.

Declines in initial jobless claims, indicating fewer layoffs, and rising stock prices will contribute to the rise in the index of leading indicators, economists said. Jobless claims averaged 460,250 a week in December, down from 480,750 the prior month.

U.S. stocks rose last month as reports suggested the economy was improving. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index averaged 1,110.38 in December, compared with 1,088.07 the previous month.

Sentiment, Building Permits

A pickup in consumer sentiment and a jump in permits for home construction also helped drive the leading index last month. Building permits rose 11 percent to a 653,000 annual rate, the most since October 2008, the Commerce Department said yesterday.

The Reuters/University of Michigan’s reading on consumer expectations for the next six months rose to 68.9 in December from 66.5 the previous month.

Seven of 10 indicators for the leading index are known ahead of time: stock prices, jobless claims, building permits, consumer expectations, the yield curve, factory hours and supplier delivery times.

“We are seeing stabilization in the economy,” Brian Moynihan, chief executive of Bank of America Corp., said yesterday in an interview. The head of the largest U.S. lender also said the economy is “fragile.”

Reiterating their pledge to keep interest rates “exceptionally low” for “an extended period,” Fed policy makers last month said the recovery faced hurdles.

The central bankers, who next meet Jan. 26-27 in Washington, will keep their target for overnight lending among banks unchanged through September before raising it by half a point in the fourth quarter, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed this month. The Fed has kept the benchmark rate near zero since December 2008.

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