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Consumer confidence index climbs

Retail sales also get a holiday lift

NEW YORK -- Americans were finishing 2005 on a more cheerful note, with consumer confidence and expectations for next year both picking up in December and retail sales improving just before the holidays.

The late-year rise in consumer sentiment was a hopeful sign for the economy, although analysts cautioned that confidence was still below levels in August.

The Conference Board, a private research group, said yesterday its index of consumer confidence climbed to 103.6 in December from 98.3 in November. Wall Street analysts had been looking for a more modest gain to 101.8.

''Consumer optimism climbed higher in December after soaring in November," said Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics. ''This followed huge back-to-back declines in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the associated surge in energy prices."

Stock prices had a modest positive reaction to the data, closing mildly higher.

Two separate reports on weekly chain store sales suggested last-minute shoppers allowed US retailers to breathe a sigh of relief after a lackluster start to holiday shopping.

The holiday season is key for retailers -- holiday shopping usually accounts for about one-quarter of total annual retail sales.

The confidence data also indicated Americans were feeling more upbeat about the future, with the survey's expectations component rising to 91.6 from 88.4.

Much of it had to do with gasoline prices, which have eased significantly from record highs around $3 per gallon in early September after hurricanes Katrina and Rita sharply reduced refining capacity.

The national average last week fell to $2.20 a gallon, according to the federal Energy Information Administration's survey of service stations.

Redbook Research said its data, which is based on estimates from retailers, showed sales increased 3.7 percent in December compared with the same month last year, although they were flat from November.

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