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Orders for US-made machine tools leaped in December in a sign that capital spending by manufacturers remains firm despite the current recession, a trade group says. New tool orders totaled $291.35 million in December, up 43.7 percent from the $202.75 million registered in November, the Association for Manufacturing Technology said in its monthly report, issued Sunday. It was an increase of 41.2 percent from the $206.30 million a year earlier.

Machine tools are precision machines used to manufacture metal products ranging from cookware to complex weaponry. Although the industry is relatively small, its activity is a key indicator of the strength of industrial production and is used by economists to gauge capital spending by manufacturers.

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The December tool order total was the highest since September 1989, while the total for 1990 as a whole, $3 billion, was the largest since $3.6 billion in 1988, the trade group said.

``The continued strong order levels are an indication that capital spending plans are holding firm despite current economic weakness,'' said Albert Moore, president of the trade group.

``The mentality of US manufacturers has changed: Investment spending is no longer the first thing cut from the budget when a downturn approaches,'' Mr. Moore added.

The McLean, Va.-based group said machine tool shipments fell 7.5 percent from a year ago to $350.95 million in December but shot up 31.2 percent from November's total of $267.45 million.

Foreign orders totaled $37.75 million in December, down from $41.50 million for November but up from $28.90 million in December 1989, the trade group said.

Metal-cutting tools orders rose 26.9 percent last month to $173.40 million and were up 9.4 percent from a year ago when orders totaled $158.55 million.

The group said the December backlog of orders reached $1.46 billion, declining from $1.52 billion in November.

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