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2/5/2004

Factories boost numbers in Dec.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — America’s factories saw orders rebound in December, rising by a strong 1.1 percent, a fresh sign that the national economy’s recovery was in full stride as it headed into the new year.

The over-the-month increase reported by the Commerce Department Wednesday came after orders placed with factories dropped by 0.9 percent in November. The latest snapshot of manufacturing activity was better than economists were expecting. They were forecasting a modest 0.3 percent rise in orders for December.

Much of the strength in December reflected stronger demand for “nondurable” goods, such as food products and apparel.

After keeping their inventories lean, “businesses are now having to restock everything from clothing and apparel to toothpaste, diapers and prescription and nonprescription medicines,” said Mark Vitner, economist at Wachovia. That restocking, he said, bodes well for helping economic growth in the current quarter, which some analysts predict will exceed at 4 percent annual rate.

For all of 2003, orders to U.S. factories rose by 3.9 percent — the best showing since 2000, when the economy was still enjoying a record expansion — and a big improvement from the 1.9 percent decline registered in 2002.

But on Wall Street, the news failed to impress investors. The Dow Jones industrials were off 10 points and the Nasdaq was down 30 points in trading around noon.

Wednesday’s report, along with other recent economic data, suggest that the nation’s manufacturing sector is gaining some ground — good news for the sector’s own recovery as well as for the U.S. economy’s continued health.

A more forward-looking report released Monday by the Institute for Supply Management said that manufacturing activity was robust in January.

Still, job creation in the sector remains weak.

Factories have lost 2.8 million jobs since July 2000, the month manufacturing employment peaked in the last expansion. The nation’s manufacturers were hardest hit by the 2001 recession and have struggled since then to get back on firm footing.

But recent economic data suggest that demand at home and abroad for U.S. manufactured goods is getting stronger.

A weaker dollar and stronger demand from other countries, whose economies are improving, have been helping U.S. exports in recent months.