Orders to U.S. manufacturers for big-ticket goods fell in September-the first drop in three months and a sign that factory activity may be cooling, Commerce Department figures showed Wednesday.

Orders fell 0.6%, to $185.73 billion, after rising a revised 2.8% in August, to a record $186.81 billion. In its Oct. 2 report on August durable goods, the government reported, before the revision, that orders had risen 2.7%.

September's drop was led by declines in orders for aircraft, motor vehicles and parts, and electronic equipment. Analysts had expected September orders to fall 0.4%.

Factories could take a breather if the recent slump in the stock market prompts consumers to be more cautious about spending, said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Norwest Corp. in Minneapolis.

"The stock market correction will make people think twice about their finances," Mr. Sohn said. If factories don't bring production in line with consumer spending, "they will find they've got too many goods on their shelves."

When the often-volatile category of transportation equipment is excluded, durable goods orders rose 0.2% last month. Excluding military hardware, orders decreased 0.3%.

September's drop was led by a 3.3% decline in orders for transportation equipment. Those declines were offset by a 1.5% gain in orders for industrial machinery and a 4.3% increase in orders for primary metals.

The report also showed orders for electronic goods fell 7.7% in September, to $31.49 billion, after rising a revised 29.4% in August. September's level was the second-highest on record.

Electronics stocks in Singapore surged after the government's initial report of a 28.4% August gain in orders for electronic goods. U.S. companies are the biggest buyers of electronics components from Singapore factories.

Meanwhile, unfilled orders, a gauge of demand, increased 0.1% in September after rising 1.1% in August. Shipments of goods, a gauge of current demand, rose 2.1% last month, after decreasing 1.3% in August.

Economists cautioned against reading too much into one month's report because orders for durable goods tend to be volatile from month to month. Orders for aircraft, in particular, tend to exaggerate trends. A jumbo jet alone costs hundreds of millions of dollars-and that's what accounted for most of last month's decline.

All in all, "the industrial sector still seems to have a good bit of vigor," Federal Reserve Governor Susan Phillips said in a recent speech.

Industrial production, for example, advanced in September for the 14th consecutive month, according to Federal Reserve statistics issued Oct. 17. Output at factories, mines, and utilities increased 0.7% last month after rising 0.5% in August, the Fed said. September's gain reflected increased production of trucks, computers, and aircraft, as well as a surge in utility output.

And many companies remain upbeat, looking past the worst U.S. stock slump since October 1987. Even Cleveland-based Eaton Corp., which sells equipment to the Southeast Asian nations whose financial crises triggered the recent stock selloff, sees no letup in demand.

Eaton's third-quarter performance "was way above expectations" and suggests that global manufacturers-including Asian customers-continue to spend more on engineered products, said Eaton's Stephen Hardis.

Mr. Hardis said strong demand for products ranging from semiconductor- manufacturing equipment to auto parts would continue to fuel its earnings growth. Sales to Detroit automakers are "very, very strong," he said.

That's because Americans, lured by rebates and incentives, are buying more cars and trucks. The government's retail sales report showed auto sales rose 0.6% in September, after increasing 1.9% in August. Chrysler Corp. chairman Robert Eaton predicted Tuesday that the automaker would capture a record market share of more than 16% in 1998, up from its present 15.1%.

Meanwhile, some companies are having a hard time keeping up with demand. Seattle-based Boeing Co. reported a third-quarter loss of $696 million, or 72 cents a share, after taking a $1 billion charge to cover assembly line problems as it tries to build a record number of planes.

But those bottlenecks don't seem to be spreading.

"I haven't heard any reports of manufacturers in the Midwest having the type of problems that have been reported about Boeing," Chicago Fed President Michael Moskow told reporters.

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