OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- A big jump in new orders suggests the economy is improving in nine Midwest and Plains states, but it's too soon to say whether that trend will continue, according to a monthly survey released Monday.
The overall economic index for the region increased to 58.2 in March from February's 53.1. Creighton University economist Ernie Goss said the increase is encouraging because any score above 50 suggests growth.
"This is the largest one-month jump that we have recorded since January 2012. However, we will have to record several consecutive months of readings like this to be confident that the regional economy is picking up steam," said Goss, who oversees the survey.
New orders were the biggest factor in the overall index's improvement, soaring to 65.4 in March from February's 55, Goss said.
The survey of business leaders and supply managers uses a collection of indexes ranging from zero to 100. Organizers say any score above 50 suggests growth while a score below 50 suggests decline for that factor.
The survey covers Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
The employment index for the region grew to 56.3 in March from February's 51.6, suggesting that hiring was picking up. But Goss said the rate of hiring varies greatly across the region, with North Dakota leading the way with 5 percent job growth thanks to its oil boom. Arkansas had the slowest hiring with a growth rate of 0.2 percent.
Inflation pressure eased in March. The prices-paid index, which tracks raw materials and supply costs, declined to 64.1 in March from February's 72.6.
The business leaders surveyed are feeling better about their prospects in the next six months, the report said. The confidence index improved to 58.2 in March from February's 50.6.
Businesses have been adding to their inventory levels in anticipation of stronger sales. The inventory index grew to 58.1 in March from February's 52.2.
"This is another indicator of improving business confidence," Goss said.
The other components of the overall March index were:
— Export orders at 50.9, up from February's 49.2.
— Import orders at 55, up from 53.7 in February.
— Production or sales at 62.4, up from February's 55.5.
— And delivery lead time at 49, down from 51.1.
Creighton University economic reports: http://www.outlook-economic.com