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U.S. December Leading Economic Indicators Up 0.3%, As Expected

An indicator of future economic activity rose slightly in December, its fastest pace since September, the Conference Board said.

However, a regional gauge of manufacturing activity from the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, registered its weakest level since September 2003.

The decline in the Richmond Fed comes amid mixed signals for the U.S. manufacturing sector. The Philadelphia Fed business conditions index in January rebounded, but the New York Fed manufacturing survey showed a slowing in the pace of expansion.

In November, the closely watched Institute for Supply Management manufacturing survey contracted for the first time in more than three years, but the measure of national factory activity showed a modest expansion in December.

The increase in the New York-based Conference Board's Index of Leading Economic Indicators suggests the economy may grow at a modest pace in the next few months.

The index rose 0.3% last month, following a revised flat reading in November and a slight decline in October.

Six of the 10 indicators increased in December, starting with building permits, jobless claims and money supply. The biggest drags were interest rate spreads and consumer expectations.

The coincident index, which measures current economic activity, rose 0.2% in December, and the lagging index rose 0.9%.

The index stood at 138 versus 138.2 in November. The index is closely watched because it is designed to forecast economic activity over the next three to six months.

Richmond Area Factory Activity Contracts

Meanwhile, economic activity in the Richmond region contracted again in January, the third month in four it has declined, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond reported.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond said its manufacturing index, a broad gauge of the regional manufacturing sector's health, came in at -11 versus -6 in December.

Numbers below zero point to contraction.

In the latest report, many of the components moved in a negative direction.

The manufacturing shipments index fell to a negative reading of -13 in January, down from -4 the prior month.

Manufacturing employment remained at a negative reading of -5 in January, while the average work week declined to -10, from -8 in December.

Services revenues, meanwhile, slipped to a positive 1 reading in January from 8 in December. The retail revenues index dropped sharply to -26 this month from -3 in the final month of 2006.

The companies surveyed in the Richmond Fed survey are located within the District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and most of West Virginia.

Chain Store Sales Rise 1.6% In January

Earlier, Redbook Research said U.S. chain store sales rose 1.6% in the first three weeks of January compared with the previous month.

The rise in the index was in line with the targeted increase, according to the report.

The Johnson Redbook Index also showed seasonally adjusted sales in the three-week period were 2.7% higher than in January 2006, just below the targeted 2.8% gain.

Redbook said on an unadjusted basis, sales in the week ended Jan. 20 were up 2.8% from the same week in 2006, after a 2.5% increase the previous week.

The report noted that January is a five-week month in the retail calendar.

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