NEW YORK – The overall economy grew for the thirty-fourth straight time, while the manufacturing sector expanded for the thirty-second time, the Institute for Supply Management reported Monday.

According to the ISM’s monthly report on business, the ISM index climbed to 53.4 in March from 52.4 in February.

Economists polled by Thomson Reuters predicted the index would climb to 53.0.

An index reading below 50 signals a slowing economy, while a level above 50 suggests expansion. A reading of 50 shows the sector was unchanged in the month.

“The PMI registered 53.4 percent, an increase of 1 percentage point from February’s reading of 52.4 percent, indicating expansion in the manufacturing sector for the 32nd consecutive month," said Bradley Holcomb, chair of the Institute of Supply Management's manufacturing business survey committee. “The Production Index increased 3 percentage points from February’s reading of 55.3 percent to 58.3 percent, and the Employment Index increased 2.9 percentage points to 56.1 percent. Of the 18 industries included in the survey, 15 are experiencing overall growth. Comments from the panel remain positive, with several respondents citing increased sales and demand for the next few months.”

The closely watched prices paid index dipped to 61.0 from 61.5. The employment index was at 56.1, up from 53.2 the prior month.

The production index increased to 58.3 from 55.3, the new orders index fell to 54.5 from 54.9; the supplier deliveries index slipped to 48.0 from 49.0; the export orders index decreased to 54.0 from 59.5; and the imports index fell to 53.5 from 54.0.

The inventories index grew to 50.0 from 49.5; the customers’ inventories index slid to 44.5 from 46.0; and backlog of orders gained to 52.5 from 52.0.

Respondents’ comments included:

“Business is robust, driven by a healthy demand for exports and relatively stable raw materials [pricing].” (Chemical Products)

“Our customers are reporting a potential 10 percent to13 percent increase in purchases for 2012. Actual orders continue to be slow to appear, but expectations continue to be high.” (Machinery)

“Business conditions [are] very strong and so is outlook.” (Fabricated Metal Products)

“We have been experiencing 6 percent annual growth and expect that to continue in the near term.” (Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products)

“Business continues to be brisk — if not robust — [this] month and looking forward.” (Miscellaneous Manufacturing)

“Business remains essentially stable, with some concerns regarding continued slowdown in China.” (Computer & Electronic Products)

“Business remains strong.” (Primary Metals)

“Business improved year over year for the first quarter.” (Plastics & Rubber Products)

“Generally increasing sales/demand [is] driving higher capacity utilization.” (Transportation Equipment)

“Sales appear to be picking up over last year at this time, but still have a ways to go.” (Wood Products)

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