WASHINGTON – An important gauge of the country’s future economic activity dipped in April, suggesting slower growth ahead. The Conference Board, a private research group, reported Thursday that its Index of Leading Economic Indicators, fell 0.1 percent, to 138.9, last month. Economists were predicting a small rise. In March, the index climbed 0.4 percent, to 139. The index is closely watched because it predicts economic activity over the next three months to six months. Economists said the slide reinforces the Federal Reserve’s forecast that growth probably will moderate to a more sustainable pace. New applications filed for unemployment insurance shot up by a seasonally adjusted 42,000, to 367,000, for the week ending May 13. That was the highest level of claims since early October. Last week’s number, however, was inflated by layoffs related to the shutdown, now resolved, a department analyst said. If not for the flood of jobless claims filings from the shutdown, last week’s claims would have stood at a seasonally adjusted level of about 312,000 last week, the department analyst estimated. It would have been considerably closer to economists’ forecasts for claims to have come in about 318,000. Although it was difficult to divine any fresh clues about the health of the overall labor market in Thursday’s jobless claims report, another important barometer, released in early May, showed job growth slowed in April. Employers expanded payrolls by just 138,000 in April, the smallest growth since October. The unemployment rate held steady at 4.7 percent last month. The Fed boosted interest rates last week for the 16th time in two years to keep inflation from getting out of control. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke did not predict the future of interest rates, but said the once-growing housing market seems set for a safe landing.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBasketball roundup: Sierra Canyon, Birmingham set to face off in tournament quarterfinalsThe economy in the first quarter of this year grew at a 4.8 percent pace, the fastest in 2 years. Analysts expect growth will slow about 3 percent to 3.5 percent in the second and third quarters – a still healthy mark. “The index is flashing not a recession but a slowing in growth, which is a welcome sign. Unfortunately, we are not seeing an accompanying moderation in inflation yet,” said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Bank of America’s Investment Strategies Group. On Wall Street, stocks slumped. Investors could not shake Wednesday’s inflation scare, which sent the Dow Jones industrial average on its biggest one-day drop in three years. The Dow on Thursday lost 77.32 points to close at 11,128.29. The decline in the Conference Board’s index comes as the housing market is slowing, energy prices are rising and consumer confidence is sagging. April’s index reading was weighed down by a drop in building permits, a dip in consumer expectations and a rise in filings for jobless benefits. In a separate report, the Labor Department said the number of people signing up for those benefits rose sharply last week mainly due to the lingering effects of a partial government shutdown in Puerto Rico.