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Leading indicators drop 0.2%

Economists: Growth may slow in 2d half

NEW YORK -- A closely watched gauge of future economic activity declined slightly in February following a sharp rise in January, a private research group said yesterday.

The decline, which follows four months of gains, suggested to some analysts that the nation's economic growth will slow in the second half of the year.

The Conference Board said its Index of Leading Economic Indicators fell 0.2 percent in February, following a revised 0.5 percent rise in January. The January increase had initially been reported at 1.1 percent.

Economists on Wall Street had expected the index to decline 0.3 percent in February.

The Conference Board said its coincident index, a measure of the current economy, rose 0.3 percent in February, following no change in January and a 0.4 percent increase in December.

In the latest report, the largest negative components were consumer expectations, building permits, and stock prices. The positive components included manufacturers' new orders for nondefense capital goods and orders for consumer goods and materials.

''Essentially the story is we have got moderate growth through the first quarter. We may tick up in the second quarter and we may tick down in the third quarter," Ken Goldstein, economist at The Conference Board, told The Associated Press. ''Growth is going to be a little slower [in the] second half of the year."

Frank Nothaft, chief economist at the mortgage consolidator Freddie Mac, said some of the growth anticipated for the first half of the year is related to reconstruction efforts in regions hurt by hurricanes last year.

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