NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Consumers have less confidence in the economy, according to the latest survey that came in below Wall Street expectations on Tuesday.
The March survey of 5,000 households by the Conference Board, a private business research group, put its consumer confidence index at 102.4, down from the revised 104.4 reading in February. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast the index would slip to 103.
Despite the second straight monthly decline, the index still is at higher levels than it registered through much of 2004. That suggests that higher gasoline prices, rising interest rates and some other head winds for the economy are not yet discouraging consumers.
"Their overall assessment of current economic conditions remains favorable and their short-term outlook suggests little change in the months ahead," said a statement from Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center. "In fact, while expectations have lost ground, consumers anticipate the job market will continue to improve, and easing employment concerns should help keep spending on track."
The survey found more consumers with both negative and positive views of the economy, while there were less with more neutral outlooks. For example 25.8 percent believe the current economy is "good", up from 24.6 percent. But at the same time those claiming conditions are "bad," increased slightly to 16.0 percent from 15.7 percent.
Similarly, those who are anticipating business conditions will improve in the next six months increased to 19.2 percent from 17.9 percent, while those expecting business conditions to worsen rose to 8.2 percent from 7.8 percent.
Economist Mark Vitner of Wachovia Securities said that in recent weeks economists and investors had been preparing for a much weaker reading than the published consensus forecast of 103, due to a weak number from a similar survey by the University of Michigan as well as weaker-than-expected economic reports.
"There was a huge sign of relief when the number came in above 100, and that's why the market rallied," Vitner said. "There was a thought that the combination of rising interest rates and higher gas prices would knock it below 100."
He said the apparent improvement in the job market is a key driver in the consumer confidence staying solid. There were 262,000 jobs added to payrolls in February, one of the best gains in the last nine months, and forecasts are for another 220,000 jobs to be added in March.
"I don't know if the gas prices and interest rates will knock consumer confidence down in coming months," Vitner said. "I think they're more likely to hold it where it is now, which is good, but not great."
Consumer confidence is an important consideration in forecasting consumer spending, particularly on large ticket items. And spending by individuals accounts for nearly three quarters of the nation's economic activity.