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US factory output rises 0.8 percent in December, led by gains in autos and business equipment

U.S. factory production rose in December for the second straight month, buoyed by more output of autos, electronics and business equipment.

The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that factory output increased 0.8 percent last month compared with November. That followed a 1.3 percent rise in November, which partly reflected a rebound from Superstorm Sandy.

Total industrial production increased 0.3 percent in December from November. That followed a 1 percent rise in November. Production slowed last month mostly because utility output dropped 4.8 percent, reflecting unseasonably warm weather.

Factory output is the most important component of industrial production. The back-to-back gains offered some hope that manufacturing could be picking up after struggling through most of 2012.

Many factories have been hurt by a slowdown in consumer spending and weaker global growth that has dampened demand for U.S. exports.

One exception has been U.S. auto companies, which boosted production sharply last year to meet the best sales since 2007. December was no different: Production of autos and motor vehicle parts rose 2.6 percent. And analysts are forecasting that Americans will buy even more cars and trucks in 2013.

There have been a few other encouraging signs that factories may be recovering from their slump.

The Institute for Supply Management's closely watched index of manufacturing activity rose to a level that signaled growth in December. And manufacturers added 25,000 jobs last month — the best hiring spree for the sector since May.

Economists believe manufacturing could also get a boost from stronger business investment, provided that Congress raises the federal borrowing limit without a fight that damages business confidence. Companies are sitting on large amounts of cash. Analysts believe many are poised to start spending this year on computers, machinery and equipment to expand and modernize their operations.

The overall economy grew at an annual rate of 3.1 percent in the July-September quarter. But analysts believe activity slowed considerably in the October-December quarter to a rate below 2 percent or less, in part because companies cut back on restocking.

Less restocking leads to slower factory production, which weighs on economic growth.

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