NEW YORK - A gauge of future economic activity is pointing toward a slowdown in the U.S. economy in the coming months, reversing recent gains and suggesting that higher gasoline prices and a sluggish construction industry are beginning to take their toll.

The Conference Board said yesterday that its index of leading economic indicators fell 0.5 percent in April, a figure worse than the 0.1 decline analysts were expecting. The reading is designed to forecast economic activity over the next three to six months.

The increase almost reversed an amended 0.6 percent climb in the index in March, which analysts say should relieve pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. The Fed would raise rates if it believed that the economy was growing so fast that it might spark inflation.

"The data may be pointing to slower economic conditions this summer," said Ken Goldstein, labor economist for the Conference Board. "With the industrial core of the economy already slow, and housing mired in a continued slump, there are some signs that these weaknesses may be beginning to soften both consumer spending and hiring this summer."

The board tracks 10 economic indicators. Two of them - stock prices and real money supply - were positive in April.

The negative contributors, beginning with the largest, were building permits, weekly unemployment claims, manufacturers' new orders for nondefense capital goods, consumer expectations, vendor performance, average weekly manufacturing hours, and interest-rate spread.

Manufacturers' new orders for consumer goods and materials held steady.

The latest decline brought the cumulative change in the index over the last six months to a drop of 0.2 percent.

The Conference Board's report came amid mixed economic data reflecting uncertainty over the direction of the economy.

The job market showed strength yesterday, with the Labor Department reporting a drop in unemployment claims.

A better-than-expected picture of the industrial sector also bolstered investors' confidence this week, but mixed housing figures offered a more measured dose of optimism.