By  on March 29, 2006

NEW YORK — The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rose in March to the highest level in four years.

But the Conference Board warned that the consumer outlook remains subdued. Still, the index's jump was impressive. The board said Tuesday that the index climbed to 107.2, following a decline in February.

Analysts and some economists were expecting the index to dip to 102 from February's revised reading of 102.7. As for the components of the index, the Present Situation Index rose to 133.3 from 130.3, while the Expectations Index improved to 89.9 from 84.2 last month.

"The improvement in consumers' assessment of present-day conditions is yet another sign that the economy gained steam in early 2006. Consumer expectations, while improved, remain subdued and still suggest a cooling in activity in the latter half of this year," said Lynn Franco, director of the Board's Consumer Research Center, in a statement.

A report from Bernstein Research said, "It appears that concerns surrounding higher energy prices and declining wage growth have abated somewhat, as the job market remains strong, and the stock market remains on an upswing. Importantly, the spread between the present situation and expectations narrowed in March, implying a relatively stronger picture of future saving/spending habits."

Consumers' overall assessment of current conditions remains favorable, but their view of labor market conditions remained mixed. Consumers who said jobs are "plentiful" rose to 28.4 percent from 27.4 percent last month, while those who claimed that jobs are "hard to get" inched up to 20.7 percent from 20.2 percent.

The outlook for the labor market was more positive. Those who expected fewer jobs to become available in the coming months dropped to 16.6 percent from 19.9 percent in February, while those who expected more jobs inched up to 13.9 percent from 13.4 percent.

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