The economy will remain sluggish and hiring slow in nine Midwest and Plains states over the next few months, according to a monthly survey of business leaders released Wednesday.

The overall economic index for the region improved to 49.5 in December, after registering 48 in November and 46.5 in October. Despite the gradual improvement, any score below 50 suggests the economy will contract in the coming months.

"Our survey indicates that the region will add few jobs in the next three to six months," Creighton University Ernie Goss said.

The December employment index dipped to 48 from November's 50.5, and Goss said some manufacturing jobs could disappear in the region.

The survey of business leaders and supply managers uses a collection of indexes ranging from zero to 100. The survey covers Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

Inflation pressure appears to have eased a bit in December. The prices-paid index, which tracks the cost of raw materials and supplies, declined to 63.5 in December from November's 64.4 and October's 71.5.

The confidence index rose in December to the neutral level of 50 from November's 43.5.

"An improving housing environment was an important factor pushing the index higher," Goss said.

The inventory index rose to 51.5 in December from November's 44.9, so most businesses are going into the new year carrying more inventory than normal.

Other components of the overall index were:

— Exports improved slightly to 50 in December from November's 47.9.

— The import index improved to 48.7 from November's 42.6.

— New orders increased to 46.4 in December from November's 46.

— Production or sales improved to 48 from November's 46.6.

— And delivery lead time grew to 53.5 in December from November's 51.8.

Oklahoma: The state's overall index dropped to 52.1 from 56.1 in November. Components of the December index were new orders at 56.9, production or sales at 43.7, delivery lead time at 46.0, inventories at 67.7 and employment at 46.1. Oklahoma also expanded its labor force over the past year and also added jobs at a pace that reduced its unemployment rate significantly. "Our surveys over the past several months point to positive job and economic gains for the first half of 2013," said Goss.