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Soft-patch not a blip

(see story link for charts)

Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke and many analysts say the economy will emerge from its current soft patch in the second half of the year as supply disruptions from Japan's disaster ease and energy prices fall.

But the Economic Cycle Research Institute, a respected independent forecaster, begs to differ.

ECRI's long leading indicator of global industrial growth suggests a slowdown has just begun. Also, the annualized growth rate of its leading U.S. index has fallen for seven straight weeks, pointing to weaker growth ahead,

"Our forecast goes directly against the popular view that growth will rebound in the second half after a brief soft patch," said ECRI managing director Lakshman Achuthan.

ECRI, which has a good record of detecting changes in the business cycle, isn't predicting a recession. But, Achuthan said, "This throttling back in global industrial production growth is a slowdown that will persist for at least a couple of quarters."

Furthermore, he added, "The slowdown is not contained in the industrial sector, but rather it is going to spread out into the broader economy."

Industrial output has slowed in the U.S., Europe and China vs. year-ago levels, raising worries about a sector that has fueled the global economic recovery.

The Philadelphia Fed's regional manufacturing index unexpectedly sank 11.6 points in June to -7.7, the worst reading since July 2009. That followed a negative reading in the New York Fed's regional gauge on Wednesday.

The Fed and other economists say it's all just a blip. Oil prices spiked on Mideast and North Africa unrest. Japan's March earthquake and tsunami crippled the world's No. 3 economy, leading to global parts shortages for cars, electronics and more.

But Japan's factories are reviving while energy prices have tumbled from May's peaks, giving consumers more money to spend.

That should offset fiscal tightening and the end of the Fed's $600 billion Treasury buying program.

IHS Global Insight sees a 3.5% growth pace in the second half, up sharply from the first half's estimated 1.9%. The Fed expects full-year growth of 3.1%-3.3%.

"We can debate about when growth picks up, but our view is that growth will pick up," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

Along with expected gains in consumer and business spending, the weak dollar should fuel exports, said Gus Faucher, a macroeconomist at Moody's, which sees second-half growth of 4%.

However, the U.S. has topped 3.7% GDP growth just once in this recovery — Q4 2009's 5.1%.

"There's still a significant amount of pent-up demand out there," Faucher said.

Yet ECRI's long leading index of global industrial production — which tracks long-term drivers in some 20 countries — says otherwise. The indicator peaked at 0.7 in August 2010, predicting a slowdown in industrial activity starting this summer. The index stood at 0.1 in April, near the lowest since January 1980.

"The long leading index of global industrial production turned down well before events in Japan and the Middle East," Achuthan said. "The slowdown was baked in the cake."