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The year's first Chemical Activity Barometer (CAB) showed slight strengthening, suggesting an improving U.S. economy throughout 2014, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) announced on Tuesday.January's barometer ticked up to 94.0, increasing 0.2 points from December's mark, the CAB's ninth consecutive monthly gain, ACC officials said in a press release. On a year-over-year basis, the barometer rose 2.6 percent."Slow and steady [economic growth] isn't a bad thing when you consider the alternative," said ACC Chief Economist Kevin Swift. "This recovery seems to lag compared to previous post-recession recoveries, but overall the fundamentals remain strong, including the ongoing expansion in chemistries related to construction and consumer-related resins, as well as light vehicle sales."Strong activity gains have been posted of late in electronic chemicals, food additives, foundry chemicals, lubricant and paint additives, mining chemicals and printing ink, he said.Considered a leading economic indicator, the CAB is derived from a composite index of chemical industry activity. The chemical industry has been found to consistently lead the U.S. economy's business cycle, given its early position in the supply chain, ACC officials said.The council also announced that the U.S. Chemical Production Regional Index rose 0.8 percent in December following a 0.3 percent gain in November, enabling the index to end 2013 on a high note.The December gain was driven by increases in the Gulf Coast and Ohio Valley regions. For the second consecutive month, production increased in all seven U.S. regions, ACC officials said. For the full year, the index increased 1.2 percent compared with 2012.Within the manufacturing sector, output in several key chemistry end-use markets expanded in late 2013, including appliances, motor vehicles, construction materials, fabricated metal products, computers, semiconductors, plastic products, printing, apparel and furniture.