U.S. Durables Orders Rose in January; Fell Ex-Transportation

Orders for U.S. durable goods rose more than forecast in January, boosted by a surge in bookings for commercial aircraft that masked a decline in demand for some business equipment.

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Bookings for goods meant to last several years jumped 3 percent last month after a revised 1.9 percent increase, figures from the Commerce Department showed today in Washington. Durable goods orders excluding transportation equipment unexpectedly fell 0.6 percent, the biggest drop since August.

Factories may be taking a pause to gauge demand after boosting production in the second half of 2009 as companies replenished inventories. Restrained consumer spending and home sales underscore Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s comments yesterday that the recovery is “nascent” and still requires interest rates near zero.

“Capital spending is probably still increasing but not at the robust pace we saw in the fourth quarter,” Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York, said before the report. “It looks like in the first half the recovery is slowing from the pace we saw in the fourth quarter.”

Economists forecast orders for all durable goods would rise 1.5 percent, according to the median forecast of 72 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. Estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from a decline of 0.5 percent to a gain of 5 percent.

Excluding demand for transportation equipment, which includes commercial aircraft and tends to be volatile month to month, orders were forecast to increase 1 percent. In the prior two months, those orders rose 2 percent.

Boeing Orders

The larger-than-expected increase in total durable goods orders reflected a 126 percent jump in demand for commercial aircraft. Boeing Co. said it received orders for 59 aircraft two months ago, up from nine in November and an increase that wasn’t captured in the Commerce Department’s durables data for December. The world’s second-biggest airplane maker said it received 10 orders in January.

Orders for motor vehicles and parts dropped 2.2 percent in January after a 5.5 percent gain.

Shipments of non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, which are used in calculating gross domestic product, declined 1.5 percent in January after a 2.4 percent gain in December. Bookings for such goods, a proxy for future business spending, fell 2.9 percent last month.

Orders for machinery slumped 9.7 percent in January, while demand increased for primary metals, communications equipment and computers.

Fourth-Quarter Investment

Purchases of equipment and software added 0.8 percentage point to fourth-quarter economic growth, according to Commerce Department figures released Jan. 29. Today’s figures suggest the pace of such investment may not be sustained in the current quarter.

Spending on equipment and software rose at a 13.3 percent annual pace in the fourth quarter, the fastest since 2006, the Commerce Department said in the report on gross domestic product.

Efforts to stabilize inventories accounted for 3.4 percentage points of the fourth quarter’s 5.7 percent pace of economic growth.

Inventories of durable goods were unchanged in January after a 0.2 percent decrease, today’s report showed.

Manufacturing, which accounts for 12 percent of the economy, expanded in January at the fastest pace since August 2004, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s factory index released Feb. 1.

Global Demand

Sales at manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers increased in the seven months through December, the Commerce Department reported Feb. 12. The rise left businesses with 1.26 months’ supply of goods on hand, the fewest since June 2008.

Manufacturers are also benefiting from rising exports as global demand recovers after the worst slump since World War II. A 10 percent drop in the value of the dollar from a four-year high on March 3, 2009 is making American goods more competitive. Exports have risen for eight consecutive months since reaching a three-year low in April.

“Private final demand does seem to be growing at a moderate pace,” Bernanke told lawmakers yesterday. The Fed chairman, who continues his semiannual testimony today, said slack labor markets and low inflation would allow the Fed to keep the benchmark lending rate low “for an extended period.”

Some manufacturers are beginning to bring back workers or hire. Caterpillar, the world’s largest maker of bulldozers and excavators, is recalling about 100 laid-off technicians at an Indiana plant because of increased demand and may be hiring more, Bridget Young, a Caterpillar spokeswoman, said Feb. 18.

Recalling Workers

“Caterpillar may be recalling or hiring employees in business units at various facilities this year based on demand fluctuation,” Young said.

Factories added 11,000 workers to payrolls in January, the first increase in three years and the most since April 2006, the Labor Department said on Feb. 5. Overall, payrolls declined by 20,000, and the unemployment rate fell to 9.7 percent.

An absence of job growth is limiting optimism even as the economy expands. The Conference Board reported Feb. 23 that consumer confidence fell to a 10-month low in February, while a measure of current conditions slumped to the lowest level in 27 years.

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