Largest chunk of U.S. economy holding up, data show

U.S. service firms expanded at a slightly slower yet still healthy pace in March, an encouraging sign after multiple reports last week pointed to a slowing economy.

The Institute for Supply Management says that its services index slipped to 56.5 last month, from 56.9 in February. Any reading over 50 indicated expansion.

Sales fell last month and dragged down the overall index. But measures of hiring and orders rose, evidence that services firms may see solid growth in the coming months.

The ISM is a trade group of purchasing managers. Its survey of services firms covers businesses that employ 90 percent of the American workforce, including retail, construction, health care and financial services companies.

"While this services index has moderated since last summer, it is holding up much better than other economic data, especially compared with those businesses that have a large export component to its business mix," Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group, emailed in a note.

"Hopefully this support will result in a Q2 economic rebound as should be expected but with the degree being the key question," he added.

Separately, the final read on March from Markit Economics climbed to a seven-month high of 59.2 from 57.1 in February, the London-based group said Monday.