The U.S. economy continued to sputter along in February with no signs of any dramatic change, The Conference Board reported today.

The U.S. leading index, a key barometer of future economic conditions, dropped 0.5 percent last month to 137.3, as rising jobless claims and weakening consumer expectations and vendor performance (supplier deliveries) were mainly responsible for February’s decline.

Based on revised data, January’s slight increase was revised down to a small decline as new data became available for the manufacturers’ new orders components for that month.

From August to February, the leading index rose 0.2 percent (a 0.4 percent annual rate). The leading index has been flat to declining in nine of the last 12 months. In addition, the weaknesses among the leading indicators have been slightly more widespread than strengths in recent months, as just four of the 10 indicators increased in February.

Following the recent declines, the leading index is now 0.9 percent below its most recent high in January 2006, but its six-month growth rate has picked up to about a 0.4 percent to 0.9 percent annual rate, up from about a -1.3 percent annual rate in mid-2006. At the same time, real GDP growth was at a 2.2 percent annual rate (preliminary estimates) in the fourth quarter of 2006, following a 2 percent rate in the third quarter.

The Conference Board said that “the recent behavior of the leading and coincident indexes still suggests that slow to moderate economic growth may continue in the near term.”

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