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Economy’s growth ‘sluggish’

– A measure of the U.S. economy’s future direction edged up in January from December, suggesting slow growth will continue in the coming months.

The Conference Board says its index of leading indicators rose 0.2 percent in January to 94.1, the second straight increase after a gain of 0.5 percent in December. In November, the index was unchanged. The gauge is designed to anticipate economic conditions three to six months out.

Rising stock prices, falling applications for unemployment benefits and a gain in housing permits drove the index higher. A fall in consumer expectations about the economy and declining new orders for factory goods limited the gain.

“The indicators point to an underlying economy that remains relatively sound but sluggish,” said Ken Goldstein, a Conference Board economist. “Credit use has picked up, driven in part by relatively strong demand for auto loans.”

Six of the 10 indicators that make up the index were positive in January. The index is derived from data that for the most part have already been reported individually.

Housing is the “biggest positive factor,” Goldstein said. Housing permits rose in January to their highest level since mid-2008. And sales of previously occupied homes rose to the second-highest level in three years.

Sales rose 0.4 percent in January compared with December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.92 million. That was the second-highest sales pace since November 2009, when a temporary home buyer tax credit had boosted sales.

Other reports provided updated snapshots of the economy.

The Labor Department said unemployment claims have increased from the five-year lows they reached in January. But they remain consistent with modest improvement in the job market.

U.S. consumer prices were flat in January from December for the second month in a row, the latest sign inflation is in check. The consumer price index rose 1.6 percent in the 12 months ending in January, the Labor Department said.

At a glance

Leading indicators: Up 0.2 percent in January
Existing-home sales: Up 0.4 percent in January
Jobless claims: Number of Americans seeking unemployment jumped 20,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 362,000
Consumer prices: Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, core prices rose 0.3 percent in January

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