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Consumer confidence is highest since April; December figure near post-recession peak

Americans are gaining faith that the economy is on the upswing.

An improving job outlook helped the Consumer Confidence Index soar to the highest level since April and near a post-recession peak, according to a monthly survey by the Conference Board.

The second straight monthly surge coincided with a decent holiday shopping season for retailers, though stores had to heavily discount to attract shoppers.

The rise in confidence jibes with a better outlook for the overall economy. An Associated Press poll of three dozen private, corporate and academic economists projects that U.S. economic growth will speed up in 2012, if it isn't derailed by upheavals in Europe.

But confidence is still far below where it is in a healthy economy. And the mood of Americans could sour again if the debt crisis in Europe deepens and spreads to the United States. Shoppers still face big obstacles -- higher costs on household basics and a still-slumping housing market.

"This is encouraging. It's good to be talking about improvement," said Mark Vitner, an economist at Wells Fargo. "But there is still a lot of room for trouble."

The Conference Board, a private research group, said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose by almost 10 points, to 64.5, in December, up from a revised 55.2 in November. Analysts had expected 59. The level is close to the post-recession high of 72, reached in February.

The December surge builds on a big increase in November, when the index rose by almost 15 points from October. That month's reading was the lowest since March 2009, amid the depths of the recession.

One component of the index that measures how shoppers feel now about the economy rose to 46.7, from 38.3, in November. The other barometer, which measures how shoppers feel about the next six months, rose to 76.4, from 66.4.

In particular, shoppers' assessment of the job market improved, according to preliminary results of the survey conducted Dec. 1-14. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 13.3 percent, from 12.4 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs declined to 20.2 percent, from 23.8 percent.

Economists watch confidence numbers closely because consumer spending -- including items such as health care -- accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.

Americans have more reason to be optimistic. The economy has produced at least 100,000 new jobs for five months in a row, the longest such streak since 2006. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits has dropped to the lowest level since April 2008.

According to the AP poll of economists, conducted Dec. 14-20, the U.S. economy is expected to grow by 2.4 percent next year. In 2011, it likely grew by less than 2 percent.

"We're starting to make some progress," said Kathy St. Louis of Atlanta, who was picking up lunch Tuesday at CNN Center. "It could always be better, but we're trying to move in the right direction."

She said she spent $700 on holiday presents, up from the $300 she spent last year, even though not much changed with her job as a paralegal.

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