Clothes dryers are stacked on top of washing machines at a Home Depot store last year in Boston. Steven Senne/Associated Press, file

WASHINGTON — Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods increased just 0.4 percent in August following a much larger gain in the previous month.

It was the fourth consecutive monthly increase, but the most recent uptick was far weaker than the 11.7 percent surge in July, the Commerce Department reported Friday.

Economists had expected production to ease somewhat after manufacturers rebounded strongly in previous months from COVID-19 related shutdowns, but the growth in August was less than half what economists had projected.

A key category that tracks business investment plans rose 1.8 percent in August, compared with gains of 2.5 percent in July and 4.3 percent in June.

Economists appear divided over how to interpret the data. Some saw the string of positive numbers as a hopeful sign of a strong bounce back. Others, however, believe the modest advance overall signals that manufacturing appears paced for a slow recovery now that an initial boost from reopenings and government aid has faded.

“We’re now in Phase 2 of this recovery, in which the economy will face persistent headwinds of the COVID-19 crisis without the support of meaningful fiscal stimulus and as a vaccine still remains absent,” said Oren Klachkin, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics.

The report showed that the volatile transportation sector rose a modest 0.5 percent as orders for motor vehicles and parts fell 4 percent, after a 21.7 percent surge in July as auto plants reopened.

Excluding transportation, orders would have risen 0.4 percent.

The changes left total orders at a seasonally adjusted $232.8 billion in August.

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