Mar 19, 10:41 AM EDT

Gauge of US economy up modest 0.2 percent in February



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WASHINGTON (AP) -- An index designed to predict the future health of the economy rose by a modest amount for a second straight month, indicating the economy's momentum may have slowed.

The New York-based Conference Board said its index of leading indicators rose 0.2 percent last month, matching the January Increase. The gains in both months were the smallest since the index rose by just 0.1 percent in August.

Analysts said that the smaller increases over the past two months may be signaling a period of more moderate activity.

"Weakness in the industrial sector and business investment is holding economic growth back despite improvements in labor markets and consumer confidence," Conference Board economist Ataman Ozyildirim said Thursday.

The leading index is composed of 10 forward-pointing indicators. Seven of the 10 indicators increased in February with the biggest support coming from the spread on interest rates, gains in stock prices and an increase in building permits.

The three indicators which subtracted from growth were weekly unemployment benefit applications, weekly manufacturing hours and the index for new orders tracked by the Institute for Supply Management.

Growth, as measured by the gross domestic product, slowed to an annual rate of just 2.2 percent in the October-December quarter with many economists expecting activity in the current quarter will be around that level. Forecasters expect a bounce back to growth rates around 3 percent for the rest of the year based on a belief that strong employment gains will boost consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

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