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Consumer confidence rebounds in March

NEW YORK — Americans’ confidence in the economy rebounded in March after a February plunge, but shoppers still remain cautious, according to a private research group’s monthly survey released Tuesday.

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index rose to 52.5 in March, recovering about half of the nearly 11 points it lost in February. Analysts were expecting a reading of 50 for March. February’s 46.4 marked the lowest level since April 2009 and erased three consecutive months of improvement.

One of the index’s barometers, which measures how shoppers feel now about their economic situation now, rose to 26.0 from 21.7 in February. The other measurement, which gauges how shoppers feel about the economy over the next six months, ticked up to 70.2 from 62.9.

Economists watch the figures closely because consumer spending, including health care and other major items, accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.

March’s confidence report appeared to confirm that February’s sharp decline may have been an aberration. Many factors had dampened last month’s confidence, including severe weather that had shut businesses and thwarted job searches, and a stock market hurting because of international worry about Greece’s national debt. Still, March’s reading is still a long way from the 90 that is considered healthy.

Confidence has been recovering fitfully since hitting a historic low of 25.3 in February 2009. But many economists believe it will remain well below healthy levels for at least another year or two.

“Despite the month’s increase, consumers continue to express concern about current business and labor conditions,” Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said in a statement. “And their outlook for the next six months is still rather pessimistic.”

She added that overall confidence has not changed significantly since last spring, when the reading hit 40.8 in April 2009 and rose to 54.8 in May.