The economic outlook brightened somewhat in March as jobless claims dropped and home construction picked up, The Conference Board reported today.

The U.S. leading index, a key barometer of future economic conditions, gained 0.1 percent last month to 137.4, with six of the 10 leading indicators advancing. However, the index is still 0.8 percent below its year-ago level.

In the six months from September to March, the leading index fell 0.1 percent (a -0.3 percent annual rate). In addition, the weaknesses among the indicators have become increasingly more widespread than the strengths over the past few months, as decreases in stock prices, consumer expectations and the interest-rate spread have dampened forecasts.

Despite a small uptick in December, the leading index has been essentially flat since mid-2006. At the same time, real GDP growth was at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2006, following a 2 percent rate in the third quarter.

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

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