Orders to U.S. factories fell by the largest amount in 6 1/2 years in January, reflecting widespread declines across a number of industries.

The Commerce Department reported that total orders dropped by 5.6 percent in January, the biggest decline since July 2000, a period when the economy was slowing sharply in advance of an actual recession which began in 2001.

The government said that orders for big-ticket durable goods plunged by 8.7 percent, even bigger than the 7.8 percent drop that had been reported a week ago. That report, which increased worries about the economy's health, played a role in the 416-point single-day drop in the Dow Jones industrial average a week ago.

The report on factory orders, coupled with other data showing weaker-than-expected activity, have raised concerns that the current economic slowdown may be more serious than previously expected.

However, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress last week that he had seen nothing in the latest reports to change the Fed's outlook for moderate growth this year.

The weakness in manufacturing was led by a 19 percent fall in orders for transporation products, reflecting a 6.7 percent drop in the struggling auto industry and a 60.2 percent plunge in demand for commercial airplanes. The airplane category, which is extremely volatile, had posted a huge increase in December, reflecting an unusually large of orders to airplane giant Boeing Co. (BA).

Demand was also down for primary metals, machinery and computers.

Orders for nondurable goods, items such as petroleum and food, fell by 2 percent in January after a 1.5 percent increase in December.