The U.S. leading index, a key barometer of economic conditions, increased 0.1 percent in December, the Conference Board reported today.

The leading index now stands at 138.5 (1996=100). Based on revised data, this index increased 0.9 percent in November and increased 1 percent in October. During the six-month span through December, the leading index increased 1 percent, with seven out of 10 components advancing.

The leading index grew strongly from mid-2003 to mid-2004, but it has been fluctuating around a more moderate upward trend since mid-2004. The strengths and weaknesses among the leading indicators were balanced through mid-2005, and the strength has become somewhat more widespread in recent months. The current behavior of the leading index suggests the economy should continue expanding moderately in the near term.

Six of the 10 indicators that make up the leading index increased in December. The positive contributors — beginning with the largest positive contributor — were index of consumer expectations, real money supply, stock prices, average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance (inverted), interest-rate spread, and manufacturers’ new orders for consumer goods and materials. The negative contributors were vendor performance, manufacturers’ new orders for nondefense capital goods, building permits, and average weekly manufacturing hours.

The coincident index, a measure of current economic activity, increased again in December. It has been on a relatively steady upward trend since April 2003, but its growth rate has moderated since June 2005. The six-month growth rate of the coincident index has been fluctuating around a 1.5 percent annual rate in the last four months. The coincident index grew at almost a 2 percent annual rate in 2005, down from about 3 percent in 2004.

The Conference Board is a nonprofit research and business group.

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