Rising jobless claims and slumping home construction soured the economic outlook in February, as The Conference Board reported today that its U.S. leading index fell for the fifth straight month.

Rising jobless claims and slumping home construction soured the economic outlook in February, as The Conference Board reported today that its U.S. leading index fell for the fifth straight month.

The index, considered a gauge of economic activity over the next three to six months, fell 0.3 percent in February, and now stands at 135. Based on revised data, this index sank 0.4 percent in January, 0.1 percent in December, 0.4 percent in November and 0.5 percent in October.

Jobless claims and building permits made the largest negative contributions to the index last month, followed by vendor performance and consumer expectations, all of which overshadowed large positive contributions from money supply and interest-rate spread.

With February’s decline, the leading index has fallen 1.5 percent (about a 3 percent annual rate) during the six-month span from August 2007 through February 2008. In addition, only two components out of 10 have increased from August to February.

The Conference Board said that the leading index has been on a downtrend since the middle of 2007, and the weaknesses among its components have become very widespread in the last three months; the last time the leading index worsened for five consecutive months was in early 2001.

At the same time, real GDP growth, which measures the total value of goods and services produced by the United States in a given period, fell to 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007, down from a 4.9 percent annual rate in the third quarter and an average 2.2 percent annual rate in the first half of 2007. The current behavior of the composite indexes suggests that increasing risks for economic weakness are likely to continue in the near term, the board said.

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