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Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods plunged 2.8 percent in March, the biggest setback in 2 1/2 years and the third straight decline, the Commerce Department said today.

The March drop, showing much more weakness than had been expected, followed declines of 0.2 percent in February and 1.2 percent in January. It left new orders for durable goods, everything from bicycles to battleships, at a seasonally adjusted $194.03 billion in February.

The weakness in durable goods orders was just the latest evidence that the economy may be entering another "soft patch" as consumers and businesses, jolted by a sharp increase in energy prices, cut back on their purchases.

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