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Don't Worry. Don't be Happy.


Don't worry. Don't be happy.

That probably will be the message today when the Conference Board unveils the October results for its Index of Leading Economic Indicators. The consensus pick is for a 0.1% decline in the index, which is designed to forecast where the economy is headed during the next three to six months.

Any decline would mark the fifth consecutive time the index has fallen.

This implies that while the economy isn't about to slide into a tailspin, it isn't going to return to its recent robust pace, when it was expanding at a quarterly rate of 4% to 7%. Leading indicators suggest a downshift in growth toward something closer to 3% for the next couple of quarters.

A middling forecast like that will strike some investors as a bit timid, and they have considerable ammunition to back their charge. Producer prices in October posted their biggest monthly jump since January 1990, with increases extending beyond higher oil prices. Industrial production and employment figures also have moved higher, and the stock market is back at around seven-month highs.

The leading-economic-indicator index certainly isn't infallible. Though it correctly predicted recessions in the 1970s, the index missed calling the ones of 1981-82 and 1990-91. Still, it does examine a broad swath of the economy, from inventory levels to money supply to corporate earnings and stock prices.

Lakshman Achuthan, a managing director at Economic Cycle Research Institute, which publishes its own version of leading indicators, says his firm's Weekly Leading Index already was forecasting a slowdown in the economy's growth back in May. "The Fed was predicting it was only a 'soft patch,' brought on by rising oil prices," Mr. Achuthan says. "We said it was more than that."

He says the leading indicators point to profit growth slowing from its torrid pace. Inventories remain high and credit growth, while not slowing much yet, will ease as interest rates continue to climb.

There are some bright spots. Mr. Achuthan says fears of a bursting of a housing bubble appear overstated, at least during the next few quarters, and the service sector shouldn't slow as quickly as the manufacturing side. He is less optimistic, however, about the job market. Even though businesses added 337,000 jobs in October, his leading indicator for employment recently fell to a 15-month low.