The Conference Board's index of consumer confidence held relatively steady in December, the first time in half a year that the indicator offered a glimmer of hope about the economy.

The monthly index of consumer sentiment, which was compiled in early December, fell to 52.4 from a revised reading of 52.7 in November, the New York-based business research group reported.

In another relatively upbeat sign, sales of new homes rose 5.4% in November, a real estate trade group reported.

GM Layoffs Announced Later

The Conference Board sampling, most of which was completed before General Motors Corp. announced plans for 74,000 layoffs, found that consumers were more optimistic about the future than in any recent month.

That result differs from a business confidence survey released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week. The index of business sentiment dropped to 39.4 in December, from 60 in June, according to wire reports.

Further dampening the consumer confidence news was a report that personal

bankruptcies in the first three quarters of 1991 had increased 25% from the same period of 1990. The numbers were released last week by the American Financial Services Association.

Economists and bankers were thus cautious about interpreting any new figure as a sign of a turnaround.

"I believe the consumer has taken a wait-and-see attitude," said Buck Harnage, executive vice president in charge of consumer credit at Florida's Barnett Banks Inc. They "have philosophically made the decision . . . that we are in a recessionary period and that's how they're acting."

Expert Not Reassured

Fabian Linden, executive director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center, was similarly cautious. The "news is hardly good enough to be reassuring," he said in a prepared statement. "Clearly, an appreciable improvement in the consumer's spirits is a prerequisite for economic recovery."

Heads of household interviewed for the Conference Board survey were about evenly divided between those who think business conditions will improve within six months and those who say they will deteriorate or stay about the same. That contrasted with the wider curtain of gloom seen in November.

A report Monday from the National Association of Realtors of a 5.4% rise in sales of existing homes during November.

The jump to 3.33 million units sold was the largest housing gain reported in nine months. Economists attributed the increase to low interest rates on home mortgages.

"I think housing is on a upswing, but I don't think it's anything like a big bull market," said Robert Van Order, chief economist at the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.

The Conference Board said that 2.9% of consumers planned to buy a home in the next six months, the same proportion as in November.

Only 5.8% said they would buy an automobile in coming months, down from 6.6% in November.

The chief constraint appears to be gloom over job opportunities.

Only 4% of consumers reported that jobs are "plentiful"; 48% called them "hard to get." Both figures are somewhat more negative than in the preceding month.

Boat Loans at Marine Unit

Despite the negative notes, some lenders saw bright spots.

James M. Meere, vice president of Marine Midland Services Corp., a Florida-based consumer finance unit of Marine Midland Banks Inc., said he has seen a big boom in new boat loans in recent days. Marine Midland is a subsidiary of Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp.

"Maybe we've given Joe Consumer so much bad news that he's not going to listen to us anymore," said Mr. Meere.

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