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.

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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