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Published: Thursday, 5/24/2012

U.S. durable goods orders edged up slight 0.2 percent in April

Business investment down


WASHINGTON — Orders for long-lasting factory goods edged up slightly in April. But a measure that tracks business investment spending fell for a second straight month.

Durable goods orders increased 0.2 percent last month after a 3.7 percent decline in March, the Commerce Department said today. Gains in volatile commercial aircraft orders and more demand for autos and parts drove the modest increase.

So-called core capital goods orders, which are considered a proxy for business investment plans, fell 1.9 percent in April after a 2.2 percent decline in March. Demand for computers and electronics products and heavy machinery fell.

Durable goods are items expected to last at least three years. Orders rose in April to $215.5 billion, up 52.5 percent from their recession low hit in the spring of 2009. Orders are still 11.6 percent below their peak in December, 2007.

The decline in core capital goods could suggest that second-quarter growth is off to a slow start. Still, orders tend to fluctuate sharply from month to month.

Many economists approached today’s report cautiously. They noted that the findings conflicted with two other reports that suggest factory activity and production grew last month.

The Institute for Supply Management said factory activity grew in April at the fastest pace in 10 months. The group’s closely watched index showed strength in new orders, production and hiring.

And the Federal Reserve reported that U.S. factory output rose 0.6 percent in April. Half of that increase reflected a big jump in production of motor vehicles and parts.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said that the weakness could be the result of lingering effect of the expiration of favorable business investment tax breaks at the end of last year.

“This is disappointing, but given the volatility of the data and the strength of the ISM new orders in manufacturing, not disastrous,” Mr. Shepherdson said.

Manufacturing has been a leading source of growth and jobs since the recession ended. Economists believe that trend will continue.

For April, orders for transportation goods rose 2.1 percent, led by a 7.2 percent increase in demand for commercial aircraft. This volatile category had plunged 46.6 percent in March.

Orders for autos and auto parts rose 5.6 percent, reflecting the continued strong demand automakers are seeing.

Excluding transportation, durable goods orders fell 0.6 percent following a 0.8 percent drop in March.

Orders for heavy machinery dropped 2.8 percent, while demand for computers and other electronics products fell 0.6 percent.

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