) -- U.S. consumer confidence showed an unexpected declined in December to 52.5, down from 54.3 in the previous month. Economists were expecting consumer confidence to rise slightly to a reading of 56.

The decline of 1.8 points in the Conference Board's consumer confidence index is a disappointment, but probably a minor one, as consumer confidence is more or less at the same level as it was a year ago, the Conference Board said in an analysis of the data. However, it should also be noted that the consumer confidence level is still well below what is considered healthy for the economy. No president has ever been re-elected with a consumer confidence reading in the 50s, and a good economy generally registers a consumer confidence reading at 90 or above.

Some economists believe more important than the consumer confidence broad index reading are the consumer confidence index questions about the labor market. In this regard, the December consumer confidence report was even more disappointing, with consumer sentiment about jobs taking a turn for the worse.

Consumers saying jobs are "plentiful" decreased to 3.9% in December, from 4.3%, while those stating jobs are "hard to get" edged up to 46.8%, from 46.3% last month.

With corporate profits at all-time highs, temporary hiring on the rise, and small business sentiment readings in November taking a turn for the better, there had been hope that the consumer confidence index would in the least show continued improvement in the labor market outlook.

With unemployment and the housing continuing to be the uncertain pillars of a stronger recovery in the economy, the latest Conference Board job sentiment doesn't provide comfort. Neither did the Tuesday morning release of the latest S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price index numbers, which didn't just show a decline, but a decline larger than the consensus expectation.

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Consumers remained mixed about future job prospects. Those anticipating fewer jobs in the months ahead increased to 19.5% from 19.1% last month, while those expecting more jobs declined to 14.3% from 15.1%.

The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes decreased to 9.9% from 11.1%.

The markets were slightly negative in trading on Tuesday morning.

-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

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