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U.S. Factories Bounce Back

New orders to U.S. factories surged in January for the second consecutive month, perhaps signaling the start of a rebound in American manufacturing after a year of struggling with fallout from Asia's economic crisis.

Orders increased 1.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted $349.6 billion following an even stronger 2.3 percent increase in December, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

There were weaker increases during five of the six months before December.

Manufacturers have been hurting from loss of export sales to Asia and other economies in recession. Factories shed more than 200,000 jobs last year.

But U.S. consumer demand has remained brisk, and Thursday's report fits with other signs of recovery in manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the nation's biggest retail chains reported higher-than-expected sales in February. Not only were consumers buying up discounted winter merchandise, there was great demand for full-priced spring goods as well.

The Labor Department also reported Thursday that the number of Americans filing first-time applications for unemployment benefits fell last week and, for February, the average level of new applications reached a 10-year low.

The signs of strength encouraged the stock market. The Dow Jones average of industrial stocks shot up 131 points in the first hour of trading, to 9,407.

Jobless claims totaled a seasonally adjusted 286,000 last week, down 8,000 from the week before.

The four-week moving average of claims, which evens out the volatile weekly totals, declined to 290,750, from 293,000 for the four-week period ending a week earlier.

That was the lowest average since February 1989 and reflected the continued strength of the American economy.

The department is scheduled Friday to report the unemployment rate for February. In advance, analysts believed it would hold at a 29-year low of 4.3 percent.

Much of January's strength in factory orders was concentrated in aircraft, which doubled from $7.8 billion in December to $15.9 billion in January.

The 102.7 percent increase was the largest in five years. Excluding the volatile transportation segment, orders fell 0.3 in January, the first decline in three months.

Aircraft wasn't the only high point for the month. Orders jumped 4.9 percent for electronic equipment, including a 13 percent increase for communications equipment.

Orders for stone, clay and glass products rose 0.7 percent, reflecting robust construction in most parts of the country.

Computer and office equipment orders fell 4.8 percent; steel orders, 8 percent; and engines and turbines, 27.3 percent.

Overall, orders for durable goods - big-ticket items expected to last at least three years - rose 3.6 percent.

Orders for nondurable goods fell 0.8 percent, pulled down by a decline in chemicals.

Shipments of factory goods, a barometer of current production, fell 0.8 percent, the first drop since October, after an idntical increase in December.

The backlog of unfilled orders jumped 1.6 percent, the first increase since August. Inventories of factory goods fell 0.3 percent, the third drop in a row.

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