Amid more signs of weaker growth ahead, a strong labor market is helping consumers cope with higher prices and soaring energy costs. Here's a look at this week's economic developments and how they may affect your business.

Leading Indicators Flat

The index of leading economic indicators grew by just 0.1 percent in March, pointing to weaker economic growth in the months ahead, the Conference Board said Thursday.

Six of the index's 10 components gained strength last month, including jobless claims, weekly manufacturing hours, and real money supply, the New York-based private research group said.

Despite the gains, the index, which gauges near-term economic strength, was 0.9 percent below its most recent high in January 2006.

By contrast, the coincident index -- a measure of present conditions -- has grown steadily since September, by 0.9 percent, including moderate gains in March.

"The data may be pointing to a softer economy this summer," Ken Goldstein, the group's labor economist, said in a statement. "Only the consumer sector, buoyed by income growth and positive attitudes, remains a strong point in the economic picture."

Consumer Prices Up

Soaring gas prices drove overall consumer prices up by 0.6 percent in March, the Labor Department reported Tuesday.

Excluding energy and food prices, so-called core consumer prices rose by just 0.1 percent, the smallest monthly increase this year. Energy prices rose by 5.9 percent, including an 11 percent increase in gas prices alone.

Housing, clothing, and medical-care prices grew at a slower rate in March, while consumers continued to pay more for transportation and communications services.

Retail Sales Rising

The surge in gas prices last month also boosted retail sales, which grew by 0.7 percent to $371.6 billion, the Commerce Department said Monday.

Excluding car and parts retailers, sales rose by 0.8 percent, including a 3.1 percent jump in gasoline sales, the report said.

Total retail sales between January and March were up 3.2 percent from the same period last year, led by an 8 percent increase in clothing store sales, the report said.

Industrial Production Down

Industrial production fell by 0.2 percent in March as warmer weather cut into output from utility outlets, the Federal Reserve reported Tuesday.

Though manufacturing output rose by 0.7 percent, with gains for both durable and non-durable goods producers, utility production dropped by a full 7 percent, the report said.

Despite the declines, overall industrial production was up by 2.3 percent over the same period last year. 

Housing Starts Pick Up

Despite widespread declines in the housing market, the number of residential building permits and housing starts both rose by 0.8 percent in March, the Commerce Department reported on Tuesday.

Despite the gains, housing starts remain 23 percent below the same period last year, while building permits are down 25.9 percent, the report said.

Meanwhile, housing completions dropped by 0.7 percent from February to 1.3 million homes, the report said.

Jobless Claims Falling

New claims for unemployment benefits fell by 4,000 to 339,000 in the week ending April 14, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The advanced national insured unemployment rate in the week ending April 7 was 2 percent, unchanged from the previous.

California, Pennsylvania, and New York reported the largest increases last week, while Missouri, Michigan, and Puerto Rico reported the largest declines.