The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Orders for big-ticket goods were flat in December after taking a dive in November, highlighting the struggles America's manufacturers are encountering as they try to get on firm footing. The pace of new-home sales also slowed last month.
The latest snapshot of manufacturing activity reported by the Commerce Department Wednesday disappointed economists, who were forecasting a solid 2 percent rebound in orders for costly manufactured goods in December.
In a second report from the department, sales of new homes also ended 2003 on a lackluster note, declining by 5.1 percent in December from November. Economists were forecasting a rise. The weakness was concentrated in the West and the South.
For all of 2003, however, new-home sales totaled a record high of 1.09 million as low mortgage rates beckoned buyers. That represented an 11.5 percent jump from 2002, the previous best-year ever for sales. The average sales price of a new home last year was $244,800, a record high and up from $228,700 in 2002.
The flat reading in orders for "durable goods" - manufactured items expected to last at least three years - followed a 2.3 percent drop in November. That weak performance raised questions about how firm a grip manufacturers had on their own recovery.
Looking at both November's and December's reports, economists continue to be hopeful that they represent a rough patch, rather than a signal of new trouble ahead for manufacturing and the national economy.
"I think it is a two-month pause," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com. "But having said that, I am a bit puzzled we didn't see better numbers."
For all of 2003, orders for durable goods rose by 2.8 percent from 2002. That marked the largest increase since 2000, when orders went up by 3.3 percent. The performance over the course of 2003 showed that manufacturers did make strides in the right direction.
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