Wall Street, fresh off of a stellar first quarter, received a rare jolt this morning, when the Institute for Supply Management, the Tempe, Arizona-based trade group, reported a much slower rate of manufacturing activity in March than had been the general expectation.

True, the well-followed industrial category did show an advance last month. That is, the survey came in with a score of better than 50.0, which is the dividing line between a rise in such activity and a contraction. It also should be noted that this index now has risen for four months in a row, following a slight retreat last November. That nominal setback had followed three straight years of gaining industrial activity.

Specifically, economic activity totaled 51.3 in March. That was lower than both the February reading of 54.2 and the expectation for March of 54.0. This was the slowest reading of the year thus far, with the January score being 53.1.

Leading the way lower in March were outright declines in supplier deliveries, which came in at 49.4 versus the February tally of 51.4. Also, lower last month were inventories, which dropped to a reading of 49.5 from the prior month's 51.5. Meanwhile, a notably slower rate of gain was tallied by new orders, which came in at 51.4, versus a vigorous 57.8 in February. That obviously was a disappointing result in this crucial area.  

Sluggishness, meantime, also was indicated by production (52.2 versus 57.6), prices (54.5 versus 61.5), and backlogs (51.0 versus 55.0).

As to the various respondents, there were indications of continuing strength in the automotive sector, while others in the defense sector noted that results there were being hurt by a slowdown in government spending. Finally, business was still brisk in furniture and related products, no doubt reflecting the ongoing vigor in the homebuilding and home sales markets, while softness was being reported in the chemicals arena.

To be sure, not all the news was sobering, as the decline in prices was certainly welcome, while the lower levels of inventories should prove helpful going forward, as those stocks will need to be rebuilt, raising production levels. Also, the employment sector showed a strengthening advance in March. Taken as a whole, however, this data must be regarded as somewhat disquieting, but perhaps not indicative of what the coming weeks will bring.