By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New orders for U.S.-made capital goods unexpectedly fell in February, but a surge in shipments amid demand for machinery and electrical equipment supported expectations for an acceleration in business investment in the first quarter.
Manufacturing is recovering from a prolonged slump, driven by the energy sector, bucking a slowdown in the broader economy. The Federal Reserve last week described business investment as appearing to have "firmed somewhat."
"The evidence is building that manufacturing activity is on something of an upswing and that capital spending on business equipment is poised to advance for the second consecutive quarter," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.
The Commerce Department said on Friday that non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending plans, dipped 0.1 percent last month after rising 0.1 percent in January. That suggested a slowdown in business spending in the second quarter.
Shipments of these so-called core capital goods jumped 1.0 percent after declining 0.3 percent in January. Core capital goods shipments are used to calculate equipment spending in the government's gross domestic product measurement. Last month's jump reflected increases in orders at the end of 2016.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast core capital goods orders rising 0.6 percent last month.
Orders for machinery inched up 0.1 percent while shipments increased 0.9 percent. Orders for electrical equipment, appliances and components advanced 2.2 percent, the biggest increase in seven months, and shipments rose 1.5 percent.
U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data amid drama surrounding efforts by Republicans to repeal Democratic President Barack Obama's 2010 Affordable Care Act and overhaul the healthcare system.
Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives called off a planned vote late on Friday because of a lack of support despite desperate lobbying by the White House and its allies in Congress, dealing a stiff setback to President Donald Trump.
Stocks on Wall Street ended down, while the dollar was little changed. Prices for U.S. government bonds rose.
"What the healthcare bill does is serve as the first litmus test of the Trump/Republicans' ability to deliver on important legislative initiatives," said Steven Ricchiuto, chief U.S. economist at Mizuho Securities in New York.
"If they fail at this then the prospects for tax reform, infrastructure and defense spending will need to be rethought."
A recovery in oil prices from multi-year lows is driving demand for equipment in the energy sector, helping to lift the manufacturing sector.
Manufacturing, which accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. economy is also being underpinned by a burst of confidence amid promises by the Trump administration to slash taxes for businesses, boost infrastructure spending and repeal some regulations.
Details of the fiscal stimulus package, however, remain vague, resulting in a moderation in orders for equipment in the last couple of months. Economists say business spending could slow in the second quarter even as they expect an acceleration this quarter.
A separate report on Friday from data firm Markit showed its U.S. manufacturing sector index fell in March to a five-month low.
"Business optimism has been at cycle highs since the start of the year, but has yet to translate into commensurate strength in real activity," said Sarah House, an economist at Wells Fargo Economics in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Spending on equipment is expected to pick up after a 1.9 percent annualized growth pace in the fourth quarter. Still, that will likely be insufficient to offset the drag on GDP from slower consumer spending and a wider trade deficit.
The Atlanta Fed is forecasting the economy growing at a 1.0 percent rate in the first quarter after expanding at a 1.9 percent pace in the final three months of 2016.
Last month, a 4.3 percent jump in demand for transportation equipment offset the dip in core capital goods bookings, and hoisted overall orders for durable goods, items ranging from toasters to aircraft that are meant to last three years or more, 1.7 percent. Durable goods orders rose 2.3 percent in January.
Civilian aircraft orders soared 47.6 percent in February, driven by an increase in plane orders at Boeing.
Orders for motor vehicles and parts fell 0.8 percent in February, while orders for defense aircraft declined 12.8 percent. There were increases in orders for primary metals, but orders for fabricated metal products fell as did those for computers and electronic products.
Unfilled orders for core capital goods increased 0.2 percent last month after rising 0.5 percent in January. Inventories of overall durable goods rose 0.2 percent last month.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)