Economic conditions in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado improved for the second straight month in November, a sign that the downturn in the regional economy might be bottoming out.
Nationally, the signals were the same as the economic recovery appeared to be on track for slow but steady gains after new reports Tuesday showed growth in manufacturing activity, construction spending and contracts to buy homes.
The Mountain States Business Conditions Index, a survey of corporate purchasing managers in the three Rocky Mountain states, climbed to 55.4 in November from October's 51.6, said Creighton University economics professor Ernie Goss.
"When we look at Utah, there now is more light than dark at the end of the tunnel," said Goss, who oversees the survey as director of the Goss Institute for Economic Research at Creighton.
The index ranges from zero to 100. An index number greater than 50 is a sign there will be economic growth in the months ahead. An index number less than 50 suggests the economy will weaken.
The batch of new national economic data lifted spirits on Wall Street, where the Dow gained more than 120 points. But analysts cautioned that the economy won't come roaring back from the worst recession in seven decades. Some say the rebound's modest growth could falter next year as unemployment keeps rising.
"We have a recovery, but it is going to be a slow one," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "People are still reluctant to add workers."
And that also could be the case for Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. Despite the growth in the regional economy, there still were no jobs added during the month, the Mountain State's survey indicated.
"Over the past year, Utah has lost 9.5 percent of its manufacturing employment, or almost 12,000 jobs," said Goss, who noted that a weaker U.S. dollar and an expanding global economy will assist the state's economy in the months ahead.
On a regional basis, Goss pointed out that the worldwide recession resulted in the loss of almost 27,000 manufacturing jobs, or a 9.7 percent reduction. Nevertheless he expects the pace of job losses will diminish significantly and cease in the first quarter 2010.
"While new orders and sales have been growing and are likely to continue to expand, that growth is likely to be volatile by historical standards, with marginal improvements in the region's job market," Goss said.
In another hopeful sign nationally, the Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index showed growth in November for a fourth straight month. The reading of 53.6 was slightly lower than October's 55.7, but any reading above 50 indicates growth.
Economists were especially encouraged that new orders -- a gauge of future production -- jumped last month. Of the 17 industries surveyed, 13 reported higher orders.
A report on construction spending from the Commerce Department also signaled growth, with the first overall increase in six months. The increase was a slight 0.04 percent, but it appeared to indicate the construction sector is stabilizing.
A third positive report showed that the number of homebuyers who signed contracts to buy previously occupied homes rose for the ninth straight month in October.
Yet challenges still lie ahead for Utah and the rest of the nation.
Goss noted that the November employment index for the region was still a weak 49.9, although that was up from 46.1 in October. "This month, we asked supply managers about layoffs for their companies," Goss said. "Over 44 percent anticipate that layoffs lie ahead."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.