The US manufacturing sector contracted in March for a 14th consecutive month but the pace of decline eased, the Institute of Supply Management said today.

The ISM said its index of the factory sector, also known as the purchasing managers index, rose slightly to 36.3% from 35.8% in February.

The figure is far below the 50% level that separates expansion and contraction but somewhat better than expected, with economists expecting a level of 36%. All 18 manufacturing industries reported declines.

But ISM survey chief Norbert Ore said the survey indicated 'the rapid decline in manufacturing appears to have moderated somewhat.'

A special question was asked about the US govenrment's economic stimulus package, and five of the 18 manufacturing industries expect to derive some benefit from the stimulus.

The survey's sub-indexes showed a similar picture of weakness that was not as bad as prior months.

The production index edged up to 36.4% from 36.3% and the employment index rose to 28.1% from 26.1%. New orders showed a stronger pace, at 41.2% from 33.1%, the ISM said.