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April 19, 2012, 11:32 a.m. EDT

U.S. growth seen improving as leading index rises

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By Ruth Mantell, MarketWatch

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — A gradual improvement in U.S. economic growth is expected past the summer, the Conference Board said Thursday as it reported an increase in its index of leading economic indicators.

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The private research group’s index rose 0.3% in March, hitting the highest level since 2008, led by the interest rate spread.

“Despite relatively weak data on jobs, home building and output in the past month or two, the indicators signal continued economic momentum,” said Ken Goldstein, economist at the Conference Board.

Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast an increase of 0.2% in March after an unrevised 0.7% gain in February. See economic calendar.

Longer term there’s evidence that the indicators are gaining, and their strengths “have been widespread” in recent months. For the six months through March the index is up 2.7%, compared with negative 0.5% in the prior six months.

The LEI is a weighted gauge of 10 indicators that are designed to signal business cycle peaks and troughs.

Among the 10 indicators that make up the LEI, seven made positive contributions in March: the interest rate spread, building permits, stock prices, a credit index, jobless claims, manufacturers’ new orders for consumer goods and materials, and manufacturers’ new orders for nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft. Negative contributions came from weekly manufacturing hours, consumer expectations and the ISM new orders index.

“The rise in financial indicators, for example, equity prices and the credit spread, suggest that the financial half of the economy has made its repairs and is moving forward,” Wells Fargo analysts wrote in a research note.

Elsewhere Thursday, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment-insurance benefits are near a four-month high. Read more about jobless claims.

An index of Philadelphia-area manufacturing conditions dropped in April, the Philadelphia Fed said.See Philly Fed story.

The National Association of Realtors reported a drop in existing home sales. See existing home sales story.

Ruth Mantell is a MarketWatch reporter based in Washington.

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