The best consumer confidence reading since September 2008's financial meltdown and bullish earnings reported this week by a range of leading companies - including UPS and Whirlpool - show rising demand and an economic rebound is gathering steam.

Americans are even feeling a bit better about the job market.

Yet despite the strengthening key pillars of the U.S. economy, housing is still a big worry. While that market has shown signs of improvement lately because of government subsidies, it remains on fragile ground and actually could start to weaken once the rebates expire.

Consumer Confidence

The Consumer Confidence Index rose in April to 57.9, according to The Conference Board, a private research group based in New York. That's a gain from a revised 52.3 in March. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected 53.5.

The April reading, released Tuesday, is the highest since September 2008's 61.4, before the index headed into freefall after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and a cascade of financial collapse. Still, the reading is well below the 90 that The Conference Board calls healthy.

More consumers in the survey said they planned to buy autos or appliance, but plans to buy homes fell from March, suggesting the housing market remains uncertain and could be a drag on a robust economic recovery.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index showed its first annual increase in more than three years. But the 0.6% gain posted in February was half the gain analysts had expected, and many of the metro markets showed declines.

Economists watch the consumer confidence number closely because consumer spending including health care and other major items, accounts for approximately 70% of U.S. economic activity.

The index -- which measures how shoppers feel about business conditions, the job market and the next six months -- had been recovering fitfully since hitting an all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009.

The monthly survey of consumers showed that consumers' current and short-term concerns about jobs and the overall economy are easing.

"Looking ahead, continued job growth will be key in sustaining positive momentum," stated Lynn Franco, director for The Conference Board Consumer Research Center.

Economists believe confidence will remain relatively weak for at least another year because companies have yet to start dramatically ramping up hiring.

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