A run of encouraging economic reports may mean the worst, panic-inducing stage of the economic downturn is over. Emphasis on the word may.

"I think there are signs of economic life," Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com in West Chester, said yesterday. "The downturn is no longer intensifying.

"The clearest evidence of that is retailing. Retail sales have turned since the beginning of the year," Zandi said.

Upbeat economic indicators, including yesterday's government reports showing gains in durable-goods orders and new-homes sales, may not mean the economy has struck bottom, however. Job losses will continue, and growth is not expected until late this year, economists said.

Gloomier economic forecasts, by the likes of Martin Feldstein, a Harvard University economics professor and a member of President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, have pushed the turnaround well into next year, according to a Reuters interview yesterday.

Even relatively optimistic economists are quick to warn that not too much should be read into reports like those released yesterday by the Commerce Department on new-home sales and durable-goods orders.

New-home sales in February jumped 4.7 percent to an annual pace of 337,000 from a record low in January. February marked the first increase in sales since the summer, and the report added to a string of "better-than-expected" housing data, according to Wachovia Bank economist Adam G. York.

New orders for computers, machinery, and other durable goods climbed an unexpectedly strong 3.4 percent in February. "This was a surprisingly strong bounce in view of the severe global recession," said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight Inc., "but we would not read too much into it."

He said he expected the overall downward trend to continue for several months.

Zandi called the climb in durable-goods orders a hopeful sign and pointed to other reasons for optimism, including the rally in the stock market. "That's important in terms of the collective psyche," he said.

The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index has gained 20 percent since March 9 - when it closed at a level last seen more than a decade before. The Dow Jones industrial average has risen 18.4 percent in the same time.

Yesterday, the Dow closed up 89.84 points, or 1.17 percent, at 7,749.81, while the S&P rose 7.63 points, or 0.95 percent, to 813.88.

The market has rallied before during this crisis, only to fade amid renewed doubts.

The tax portion of the federal-stimulus program is kicking in, as a decline in tax withholding is starting to boost take-home pay, Zandi said. That could bolster the positive trend in consumer spending seen early this year.

William C. Dunkelberg, an economics professor at Temple University, said pent-up demand in the economy was huge because consumers had reduced spending out of fear. "As confidence returns," he said, "they'll spend."

Dunkelberg went out on a limb and said that the economy had bottomed, citing the gain in construction, the upturn in new-home sales, and the decline in inventories to record lows.

An executive at National Penn Bancshares Inc. is not ready to go that far.

"I think our stance here is to prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised if things turn out better," said Michael R. Reinhard, the Boyertown, Pa., bank's chief financial officer.

"We're not ready to call this the bottom, and everything's uphill from here."

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.