WASHINGTON - The U.S. economy could be in for another bout of weakness in the months ahead, economists said yesterday after the Commerce Department reported that the index of leading economic indicators fell 0.3% in September.
The decline matched a revised 0.3% downturn in August, which was greater than the 0.2% dip reported last month, and marked the third decrease in the last four months. The index was up a slight 0. 1% in July, but it was also off 0.3% in June.
Partly because the index tends to use data that are more reflective of the industrial sector than the service sector economists do not like to put much stock in the index of leading indicators as a measure of future economic activity. Many prefer to use it as evidence of what is going on at present in the economy.
But analysts also noted that even the Commerce Department's index of coincident indicators, which is designed as a measure of current economic activity, showed three decreases in the last four months. The September index fell 0.3% following a drop of 0.6% in August.
"The indicators are pointing to somewhat lesser growth, than the underlying-rate of around 2%," said Nancy Kimelman, chief economist for Technical Data. "It's not a pretty picture."
Paul Getman, financial economist with Regional Financial Associates in West, Chester, Pa., commented, "There is just a broad confluence of factors wearing down our growth prospects. Every time we take a step forward, something comes out of the blue.
"I think we've plateaued." said Getman, who cited low consumer confidence readings. high initial jobless, claims, and continuing lay-offs at Fortune 500 companies such as Pratt & Whitney and General Motors Corp. "We are in a very slow growth mode, and it's going to take heaven and earth to move us out of it."
Getman said he is looking for "a very large stimulus program in January from the Clinton administration" step up the economy if the governor from Arkansas is elected. And, he suggested, there is still a chance that the Federal Reserve will opt for another round of interest-rate reductions, perhaps in December or January.
Not all analysts were pessimistic about the outlook. Brian Jones, an economist with Salomon Brothers, said he expects several components of the index that fell in September to be back up in October. "We've got an economy that is generally getting better, but with very few price pressures," he said.
"The next risk is that the economy starts to move at a faster rate rather than a slower rate," Jones added.
Other analysts do not expect the Fed to lower rates again any time soon, especially with the bond market fretting over whether Bill Clinton will offer a fiscal stimulus program.
Six of 11 indicators contributed to the drop in the September index. led by sensitive materials' prices. Other components that fell included average work week, manufacturers' unfilled orders, initial jobless claims, consumer expectations, and plant and equipment orders.
Five indicators made positive contributions to the index: building permits, vendor performance, manufacturers' orders for consumer goods, money supply, and stock prices.