WASHINGTON - U.S. consumer confidence has rebounded to the highest reading in six years, providing a further sign that the economy's prospects should brighten with warmer weather.
The Conference Board said Tuesday that its confidence index rose to 82.3 this month from a February reading of 78.3. It was the strongest reading since the index stood at 87.3 in January 2008, just as the Great Recession was beginning.
"This is a good report," said Chris Christopher Jr., director of consumer economics for IHS Global Insight, in a client note. "Currently, consumer confidence is at rather elevated levels. Consumer confidence made significant progress in March, indicating that the winter economic blues on the consumer front are somewhat behind us."
Conference Board economist Lynn Franco said consumers are moderately more upbeat about future job prospects and the overall economy, though less optimistic about income growth.
"Overall, consumers expect the economy to continue improving and believe it may even pick up a little steam in the months ahead," Franco said.
Consumer confidence is closely watched because consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity.
The strength in the index this month came from an increase in consumers' expectations, which offset a slight decline in their view of current conditions. By region, the biggest jump in confidence was in the New England and South Atlantic regions, which both experienced unusually harsh weather last month, according to Capital Economics.
The number of Americans who felt jobs were hard to get rose slightly to 33 percent, up from 32.4 percent in February. Economists expect views about the labor market to brighten as employers increase the pace of hiring.
Employers added 175,000 jobs in February, far more than in the previous two months, and many private economists foresee solid job gains ahead.
Many see the economy finally gaining momentum this year. The latest outlook from top forecasters at the National Association for Business Economics expect the overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, will expand 3.1 percent this year. That would be a substantial increase from last year's lackluster 1.9 percent growth. If that target is reached, it would be the best performance in nine years.
An 18-month recession ended in the summer of 2009, and the recovery since then has been achingly slow. But the tax increases and spending cuts that dragged on growth last year will be less of a factor in 2014, according to many economists.
Faster economic growth and more robust hiring would lift consumers' spirits and power stronger consumer spending, analysts say. That expectation for stronger growth, though, doesn't include the first three months of 2014, when severe winter storms raked parts of the country.
The NABE forecasters expect January-March economic activity to expand at an annual rate of 1.9 percent but then recover to a 2.8 percent growth rate in the April-June quarter.
At its December, January and March meetings, the Federal Reserve trimmed its monthly bond purchases and indicated that the economy, as it gains momentum, will need less support through such bond purchases. Those actions have pushed down long-term interest rates, encouraging investors to remain active in the markets.
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