updated 4/5/2004 2:09:05 PM ET 2004-04-05T18:09:05

Confidence in the economy surged to a two-decade high among chief executive officers in the first quarter, according to a survey released Monday.

Major Market Indices

Conference Board, a New York nonprofit group that tracks business trends, reported its business-sentiment index rose to 73 in the first quarter from 66 in the last quarter of 2003.

The index is based on a survey of 100 CEOs.

The first quarter's reading was the highest since the index registered 74 in the final quarter of 1983.

Index readings above 50 indicate more positive than negative responses.

"Half of all CEOs surveyed anticipate an increase in hiring plans over the course of the year, suggesting labor-market growth should gain momentum in the months ahead," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center.

Until recently, higher business confidence hasn't been accompanied by much hiring. But last month's 308,000 rise in nonfarm payrolls provided hope that hiring is picking up.

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