A gauge of planned business spending was flat in September, a sign that heightened uncertainty is weighing on factories although new orders for long-lasting manufactured goods increased during the month.
Other data on Thursday showed the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week, giving a clearer sign that the labor market is healing after wild fluctuations in the data at the beginning of October.
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New orders for capital goods outside of defense and excluding aircraft, a proxy for business spending plans, was unchanged last month at $60.3 billion, Commerce Department data showed.
That was short of economists' expectations for a 0.7 percent gain.
"The data then fits with yesterday's Fed assessment that growth in business investment has slowed," said Alan Ruskin, a currency strategist at Deutsche Bank in New York.
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday warned that weakness in business investment contrasted with brighter economic signals from household spending.
In September, shipments of non-defense capital goods other than aircraft, which go into the government's estimates for economic growth, fell for the third straight month.
Many economists believe companies are holding back investments due to fears the U.S. Congress could fail to avert sharp tax hikes and spending cuts in 2013, which threaten to send the U.S. economy back into recession.
The readings on investment were part of a larger report on long-lasting factory goods, which showed new durable goods orders posting their biggest gain last month since January 2010.
New orders for durables rose a higher-than-expected 9.9 percent, partially reversing a sharp loss in August. Wild fluctuations in aircraft orders have generated much of the volatility.
Excluding transportation, new orders rose a more modest 2 percent. Boeing received 143 orders in September, up from just one in August, according to information posted on the plane maker's website.
Manufacturing, which has been a major driver of the recovery from the 2007-09 recession, has recently suffered as the European debt crisis has sent a chill over the global economy.
The U.S. economy remains hobbled by a persistently high jobless rate. Incomes have stagnated and many families are awash in debts taken on during a housing bubble in the last decade.
Recently, however, the economy has shown a few positive signals, with the unemployment rate falling to 7.8 percent and retail sales picking up. Consumer spirits have also brightened.
Those signs of improvement appear to have done little to bolster President Barack Obama's bid for a second term, and there is only one more reading on U.S. unemployment before the November 6 election.
Investors in U.S. stocks appeared to shrug off the data, with stock index futures pointing to gains on optimism China's economy may be recovering. Prices for U.S. government debt held steady at lower levels following the release of the data.
Separately, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 23,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 369,000.
The prior week's figure was revised slightly higher to show 4,000 more applications than previously reported.
A department analyst said all states submitted data for the report and that there was nothing unusual in the raw data. The analyst said the data showed no signs of the factors that had appeared to generate sharp swings in the claims reading over the prior two weeks.
The four-week moving average for jobless claims, which smoothes out such volatility, rose 1,500 to a 368,000. Economists generally think a reading below 400,000 points to an increase in employment, with hiring likely to outpace layoffs.
Earlier this month, claims swung sharply lower and then higher, which a Labor Department analyst said was likely due to a change in the seasonal pattern that usually manifests at the beginning of the quarter. That distortion in the seasonal data appears to a have passed, the analyst said on Thursday.
Continuing claims for jobless benefits fell 2,000 in the week ended October 13 to a seasonally adjusted 3.254 million, the Labor Department said.
(Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci)