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Leading indicators rise 0.4 percent in March

NEW YORK — A private research group says its measure of future economic activity rose 0.4 percent in March, the ninth straight monthly increase.

The gains in the index suggest that the economy will strengthen as summer approaches, despite rising oil and food prices and the impact of the earthquake in Japan, the world’s third-largest economy.

The Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators began moving sharply higher last fall as the jobless rate dropped and the stock market rallied. It had risen a revised 1.0 percent in February.

In March, it got a boost from signs of growing demand in the U.S. manufacturing sector and a rebound from a five-decade low in building permits. The permits signal future construction in the housing market.

Economists surveyed by FactSet had expected the index to grow 0.3 percent in March.