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Leading indicators up slightly

WASHINGTON -- A modest increase in consumer expectations helped boost a closely watched gauge of future economic activity in September, but not enough to lift the economy out of the doldrums, an industry-backed research group said yesterday.

The Conference Board said its index of leading economic indicators edged up 0.1 percent to 137.7 last month. The index had slipped 0.3 percent in July and 0.2 percent in August. The September increase fell short of analysts' expectations of a 0.3 percent rise.

The index is designed to predict economic activity three to six months down the line.

The small gain in September fit with economists' expectations that growth will slow in the coming months.

``The leading index started to point to slower growth ahead a year ago; that's where we are now," said Ken Goldstein, the Conference Board's labor economist.

``Growth, but slower growth," he said. ``And the latest readings tell us that's where we're going to be for a while," possibly into the first half of 2007.

Over the past six months, the index has fallen 0.9 percent. It has declined in five of the last eight months, with areas of weakness including manufacturers' orders for goods and housing permits as the housing market has softened.

The release of the leading indicators report followed a government report earlier yesterday that the number of newly laid-off workers filing for unemployment benefits dropped sharply last week to the lowest level in nearly three months. The Labor Department said that 299,000 people filed claims for jobless benefits, a decline of 10,000 from the previous week.

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