NEW YORK — An index designed to forecast future economic activity rose in February for the third time in the past four months while unemployment claims fell, suggesting that the U.S. economy is on track to continue expanding into the summer.
But optimism about the future was tempered by the rapid run-up in crude oil prices, which soared above $57 a barrel for the first time on Thursday.
“These higher energy prices are definitely going to take their toll on the consumer,” said Anthony Chan, managing director and senior economist at JPMorgan Fleming Asset Management in Columbus, Ohio. As a result, he expects economic growth to slow in the second half of the year.
The Conference Board reported Thursday that its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators advanced 0.1 percent to 115.6 in February. Analysts had expected the index to be unchanged.
The February increase followed a decline of 0.3 percent in January to 115.5. The index had risen 0.3 percent in both November and December.
Kenneth Goldstein, economist for the business-sponsored research group, said the trend was “pointing to (economic) growth this spring.”
The index is designed to predict economic activity over the next three to six months.
In Washington, meanwhile, the Labor Department said that the number of new people signing up for unemployment benefits last week declined for the first time in a month — an encouraging sign that the jobs market may be gaining traction.
The department said new applications for unemployment insurance dropped a seasonally adjusted 10,000 to 318,000 for the week ending March 12. The level of 318,000 was the lowest since late February.
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