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WASHINGTON – U.S. service companies expanded at a slightly faster pace in January. New orders, sales and hiring showed strength in a sign that financial firms, retailers and information technology companies foresee stronger growth.

The Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing managers, said Wednesday that its service-sector index rose to 54 from 53 in December. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.

The improvement points to continued economic gains for the service industry, despite some challenges posed by freezing temperatures and winter storms last month.

The survey covers businesses that employ 90 percent of the U.S. workforce, including retail, construction, health care and financial services firms. Because these companies are less sensitive to nasty weather than manufacturers are, the January figure suggests that a reported slowdown at factories last month was due in part to the winter chill rather than to broader weakness in the economy.