Orders for computers, autos, aircraft and other long-lasting durable goods unexpectedly fell sharply in February, the third decline in four months for the key indicator of future economic growth.
The Commerce Department said Wednesday that durable goods orders declined 1.4% from the previous month, led by a large drop in orders for defense aircraft.
Economists had expected a fall-off from January's 2% growth. But forecasts called for a 0.2% increase.
"The severe weather likely played at least some role in this, but the trend clearly has turned down since last summer," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
Cutbacks in orders from energy companies because of falling oil prices has accounted for most of the drop in recent months, he said.
Durable goods orders are a sign of activity in the important manufacturing sector, although the data can vary widely month to month.
The rising value of the dollar, which makes U.S. exports more costly, and weak economic growth abroad also are hurting orders, economists said.
Orders for transportation equipment led the decline in February, falling 3.5%.
Defense aircraft and part orders dropped 33.1%. Non-defense aircraft orders fell 8.9%. And orders for motor vehicles and parts were down 0.5%.
Excluding transportation, orders fell 0.4% in February, an improvement from the previous month's 0.7% decline.
Orders for non-defense capital goods, excluding aircraft, a figure economists view as an indicator of business investment, fell for the sixth straight month.
Those orders declined 1.4% in February after a 0.1% decline the previous month.