NEW YORK — Consumer confidence retreated in February after two months of progress as fears about employment and the equity markets reawakened the public’s anxiety.

The Conference Board’s monthly reading of consumer confidence, which is based on a representative sample of 5,000 U.S. households and a leading indicator of consumer spending, fell to a worse-than-expected 94.1 in February, down from an upwardly revised 97.8 in January.

Both components of the index fell last month. The Expectations Index, the consumer outlook for the next six months that constitutes half of the overall measurement, fell 4 points, to 93.6 from 97.6, while the Present Situation Index, a reading of current consumer attitudes, dropped slightly less, to 94.8 from 98.1.

Over the past few months, the index has suggested a a gradual recovery from a mild recession. But February’s bumpy equity markets, attributable in part to concerns over the corporate accounting practices of bankrupt Enron and other U.S. companies, appear to have interrupted the sense of increasing stability consumers had demonstrated since the end of last year.

“Consumers have become anxious given the year-to-year decline by the stock market,” Moody’s Investors Services economist John Lonski said. “The January and February [equity market] declines heightened consumers’ anxieties and, in response, consumer confidence dipped somewhat more than expected.”

Still, Lonski called February’s worse-than-expected showing a mere “blip” and noted various examples of positive news, including better-than-expected indications about retail sales and, on Monday, existing home sales.

Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board’s Consumer Research Center, said that although consumers were less optimistic in February, the index did not fall dramatically enough to indicate a shift in general attitudes. In addition, she said the reading remained above 90 points, a critical benchmark indicating consumers’ willingness to spend.

Those expecting an improvement in business conditions in the next six months decreased to 22 percent from 24.9 percent, and those anticipating conditions to worsen rose to 11.3 percent from 9.8 percent.

The employment outlook also was less positive. Currently, 18.4 percent of consumers expect more jobs to become available in the next six months, down from 18.9 percent in January. Those expecting decreased job availability rose to 19.3 percent from 18 percent. Fewer consumers — 19.9 percent of respondents versus 20.1 percent in January — expect their paychecks to grow over the next six months.

Those rating current conditions as “good” declined, to 17.2 percent from 18.2 percent, while those rating them “bad” rose marginally, to 22.9 percent from 22.4 percent. Those reporting jobs were plentiful fell to 17.8 percent from 18.4 percent, but those claiming jobs were “hard to get” edged up to 22.8 percent from 22.5 percent.

Franco noted that both index components “still point to healthy consumer spending in the months ahead” as the current condition’s evaluation was driven more by a decline in consumer appraisal of business conditions than by employment.

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