02/24/2015 10:44 EST | Updated 04/26/2015 05:59 EDT

Consumer confidence slides after big January gain but remains above pre-recession levels

WASHINGTON - U.S. consumers are feeling a bit less confident this month, but their spirits are still at the highest levels since before the Great Recession.

The Conference Board reported Tuesday that its consumer confidence index dropped this month to 96.4 from a revised 103.8 in January. The February and January readings are the highest since before the recession officially started in December 2007.

Consumers are modestly less confident about current economic conditions and considerably less confident about the next six months. They are slightly more likely to say jobs are "hard to get" than they were in January.

A year ago, the consumer confidence index was a much lower 78.3. The rising confidence over the past year reflects in part a stronger job market. Employers added more than 1 million jobs from November through January — the best three months of hiring since the fall of 1997.

Even wages, the job market's weakest link, have shown signs of improvement. The average hourly wage rose 12 cents to $24.75 in January; the 0.5 per cent jump was the highest since 2008.

Consumers' spirits have also risen as gasoline prices have plummeted — to $2.31 a gallon from $3.42 a year ago. Still, gas prices are up from $2.04 a gallon a month ago, according to AAA.

Another measure of consumer confidence, issued late last month by the University of Michigan, showed that consumer confidence hit an 11-year high in January.

Consumer confidence measures "remain at inspiring levels," Bricklin Dwyer, economist at BNP Paribas, wrote in a research report Tuesday. "We continue to expect consumer spending to kick the year off on a robust foot after the drop in energy prices gave consumers a substantial windfall."

U.S. economic growth slowed to a solid-but-unspectacular 2.6 per cent annual pace in the last three months of 2014 after growing 5 per cent from July through September. Economists say the economy is likely to grow about 2.5 per cent from January through March.

Last week, the Conference Board reported that its index of leading economic indicators rose last month by the smallest amount since August.