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Industrial Output Posts Modest Increase

The nation's industrial output posted a modest increase in January as strength at utilities offset weakness in manufacturing and mining.

Meanwhile, separate economic reports showed a gains in import and export prices, while a gauge of factory activity in the New York region plummented.

The Federal Reserve reported Friday that industrial production rose by 0.1 percent in January, matching the December increase. The slight January gain was in line with economists' expectations.

Manufacturing output was flat last month, the poorest showing in three months, as factories are feeling the effects of a significant economic slowdown that has raised worries that the country is slipping into a recession.

Output fell at auto plants, which have been struggling with weak demand, and was also down at factories making wood products and furniture, sectors which have been hit hard by the prolonged slump in housing.

By contrast, output was up at factories producing computers, electronic products and aerospace equipment.

Output was down 1.8 percent in mining, a category that includes coal production and oil exploration. Output at the nation's utilities was up 2.2 percent in January, reflecting the cold weather that hit much of the country.

Import, Export Prices Rise

Meanwhile, U.S. import prices rose 1.7 percent in January, while export prices increased 1.2 percent, the largest rise since January 1989, a U.S. government report showed on Friday.

Containers are loaded and unloaded Wednesday, April 11, 2007  at the New York Container Terminal in the Staten Island borough of New York. The Director of Homeland Security's  Domestic Nuclear Detection Office Vayl Oxford toured the Advanced Spectroscopic Portals installed at the New York Container Terminal on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin Ii
Containers are loaded and unloaded Wednesday, April 11, 2007 at the New York Container Terminal in the Staten Island borough of New York. The Director of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office Vayl Oxford toured the Advanced Spectroscopic Portals installed at the New York Container Terminal on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected only a 0.4 percent rise in import prices and a 0.3 percent rise in export prices.

The Labor Department revised its estimate of December import prices to show a 0.2 decline, after previously reporting them unchanged. December export prices stood at 0.4 percent.

Petroleum and food were key factors behind the rise in overall imports prices. Prices for imported petroleum increased 5.5 percent in January and were up 66.9 percent over the past
the 12 months the largest 12-month gain since October 2004.

The year-to-year rise in import prices was 13.7 percent, the biggest 12-month change since 1982 when the department began tracking this data.

Empire State Index Plummets

Separately, the New York Fed's "Empire State" general business conditions index posted its biggest monthly drop in February to the weakest since April 2003.

The index slipped to minus 11.72 from plus 9.03 in January, the New York Federal Reserve said Friday. Economists polled by Reuters had expected a February reading of plus 6.00.

A number of the survey's components slipped into negative territory, suggesting severe deterioration in the state's factory activities.

The survey's new order index slipped to minus 11.88 from a barely positive 0.04 in January, to its lowest since October 2001 when it was at minus 18.64, while the shipment reading sagged to minus 4.86 from plus 15.84.

The gauge of the number of employees fell to minus 2.11 from January's plus 2.44, and the measure of average workweek decreased to 0.00 from plus 4.88.

Gloomy Read

Together with signs of rapidly slowing growth, the price aspect of this regional factory survey was also gloomy.

The slump in housing and a severe credit crunch have dragged down overall economic growth, which skidded to a barely discernible 0.6 percent annual rate in the final three months of last year.

A growing number of economists believed that the gross domestic product will turn negative in the current January-March quarter and in the April-June period as well, fulfilling the classic definition of a recession.

In an effort to ward off a full-blown recession, Congress quickly passed a $168 billion economic stimulus plan that will provide rebate checks to 130 million people starting in May.

In addition, the Federal Reserve has aggressively cut interest rates, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled in testimony to a congressional committee on Thursday that the central bank was prepared to do more to boost growth.

The labor market shed 17,000 jobs in January, the first monthly job loss in more than four years, a decline that was led by weakness in construction and manufacturing.

Construction companies cut 27,000 jobs last month and have lost 284,000 since employment peaked in September 2006 as the five-year boom in housing was coming to an end. Factories eliminated 28,000 positions in January, and have cut 269,000 jobs over the past 12 months.

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