WASHINGTON - New orders for key U.S.-made capital goods rose by the most in six months in January and shipments increased, pointing to solid business spending on equipment at the start of the year.
The stronger-than-expected report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday could prompt economists to upgrade their very low growth estimates for the first quarter. Still, it will probably do little to change views that the economy continued to lose momentum early in the year, with retail sales rising moderately in January and inflation broadly tame in February.
Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending plans, rebounded 0.8 percent, the biggest gain since July. These so-called core capital goods orders fell 0.9 percent in December.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast core capital goods orders edging up 0.1 percent in January. Core capital goods orders increased 3.1 percent on a year-on-year basis.
Shipments of core capital goods jumped 0.8 percent in January after edging up 0.1 percent in the prior month. Core capital goods shipments are used to calculate equipment spending in the government's gross domestic product measurement.
The January report was delayed by a 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government that ended on Jan. 25. The February report, which was scheduled for release later this month, will now be published on April 2.
The surge in core capital goods shipments suggests spending on equipment maintained its solid pace of growth after accelerating in the fourth quarter. That could provide a lift to first-quarter GDP growth estimates after they were slashed to as low as a 0.2 percent annualized rate after a report on Monday showing a small rise in January retail sales.
The economy is losing steam as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut fades. A trade war between the United States and China, slowing global economies and uncertainty over Britain's exit from the European Union are other factors hurting activity.
The economy grew at a 2.6 percent pace in the fourth quarter. A second report from the Labor Department on Wednesday showed its producer price index for final demand edged up 0.1 percent in February, lifted by a rebound in the cost of gasoline. The PPI had dropped for three straight months.
U.S. Treasury prices fell slightly after the data, while the dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies. U.S. stock futures were slightly higher.
In the 12 months through February, the PPI rose 1.9 percent. That was the smallest gain since June 2017 and followed a 2.0 percent increase in January. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the PPI rebounding 0.2 percent in February and advancing 1.9 percent on a year-on-year basis.
A key gauge of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services rose 0.1 percent last month after climbing 0.2 percent in January.
The so-called core PPI increased 2.3 percent in the 12 months through February, the smallest rise since December 2017, after advancing 2.5 percent in January.
Data on Tuesday showed consumer prices rising moderately in February, with the consumer price index posting its smallest annual gain in nearly 2-1/2 years.
Slowing domestic and global growth are keeping inflation contained even as a tight labor market boosts wage growth.
An improvement in productivity is curbing labor costs for companies and the dollar strength last year is weighing on prices of imported goods.
Slowing growth and tame inflation support the Federal Reserve's "patient" approach towards further interest rate increases this year. The U.S. central bank raised interest rates four times in 2018.
Business spending on equipment in January was boosted by orders for machinery, which rebounded 1.4 percent after dropping 0.6 percent in December. Orders for electrical equipment, appliances and components jumped 1.7 percent after falling 0.2 percent in the prior month.
But orders for computers and electronic products declined 1.3 percent, the biggest drop since March 2017. There were also decreases in orders for primary metals and orders for fabricated metal products were unchanged.
Overall orders for durable goods, items ranging from toasters to aircraft that are meant to last three years or more, increased 0.4 percent in January. That reflected a 1.2 percent rise in demand for transportation equipment.
Durable goods orders increased 1.3 percent in December.
A 1.0 percent drop in orders for motor vehicles and parts was offset by increases in orders for civilian and defense aircraft.