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Industrial production fell 0.6 percent in March, biggest retreat since recession

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WASHINGTON — U.S. industrial production registered the biggest drop in almost six years last month, another sign that the economy got off to a stumbling start in 2015.

The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that industrial production — which includes factories, utilities and mines — slid 0.6 percent in March, the biggest drop since a 1.1 drop in May 2009. For the first three months of the year, industrial output fell at an annual rate of 1 percent, the worst quarterly performance since the first quarter of 2009 during the Great Recession.

"A steep fall in industrial production suggests the U.S. economy is going through its worst growth patch since early 2009," Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, wrote in a note to clients.

PHOTO: In this Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 photo, a man welds parts in fans for industrial ventilation systems at the Robinson Fans Inc. plant in Harmony, Pa. The Federal Reserve releases industrial production for March on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
In this Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 photo, a man welds parts in fans for industrial ventilation systems at the Robinson Fans Inc. plant in Harmony, Pa. The Federal Reserve releases industrial production for March on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Factory output edged up 0.1 percent in March, which was the first increase since November. But the gain was driven entirely by a 3.2 percent increase in auto production. Factory production dropped 0.2 percent in February after falling a revised 0.6 percent in January — twice as much as the Fed originally reported.

Utility output dropped 5.9 percent drop in March as temperatures rose and Americans didn't need to use as much heat.

Mining output fell 0.7 percent last month, dragged down by a 17.7 percent plunge in oil and gas drilling.

Economic growth has been unimpressive the past six months. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent annual pace the last three months of 2014 and likely expanded no more than 1 percent from January through March. But economists expect growth to pick up in the current April-June quarter, pulled higher by consumer spending.

Separately Wednesday, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that its index of manufacturing activity in New York shrank in April for the first time in four months. Manufacturers have been struggling in recent months because a strong dollar has made their products more expensive in foreign markets and because a port strike on the West Coast disrupted shipments.

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