NEW YORK - The Conference Board's measure of consumer confidence showed a healthy gain for December, particularly in the portion of the index that serves as a leading indicator.

The index improved by almost 13 points, to 78.3, on top of an 11-point improvement in November. But it is still well below the 1985 benchmark of 100.

The December report showed consumers moderately more positive in their assessment of prevailing conditions, and markedly more optimistic in their expectations for the coming six months.

Bodes Well for Economy

The expectations component of the index "registered an imposing gain over the past two months," said Fabian Linden, executive director of the Conference Board's consumer research center. That increase "in so brief a time period generally foreshadows significant improvement in the nation's economic performance.

"However, it must be cautioned that two months of gain make too brief a period to be totally convincing," Mr. Linden added. "Still, the recent message from the nation's consumers is quite encouraging. Consumer confidence is now stronger than it has been in more than a year and a half."

Compared with the November survey, fewer respondents said that prevailing business conditions are "bad." But pessimists still outnumber optimists on this question by a ratio of about three to one.

Concerning current job availability, opinion continues to be very negative. Those who reported jobs were "hard to get" outnumber those who said jobs were "plentiful" by a wide margin.

The public was more optimistic about longer-term employment prospects. There was a sharp increase in those who believed more jobs will become available in the next six months, and a drop in those who felt they will become scarcer.

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