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LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. consumer confidence surged in the first quarter to its highest in more than four years as the economy improved, contrasting with still very low morale among debt-laden euro zone countries, a survey showed on Monday.
Confidence remained highest in India and the Asia Pacific, according to the quarterly survey by global information company Nielsen.
Globally, consumer sentiment rose slightly from the fourth quarter of 2011, according to the Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index. The index gained 5 points in the first quarter of 2012 to 94, helped by a nine-point jump in the United States' score over the previous three months.
Some 55 percent of global consumers described their personal finances for the next 12 months as excellent/good, up from 52 percent in the previous quarter, while 33 percent indicated it was a good time to buy things they wanted.
The rise in confidence in the United States, to its highest level since the third quarter of 2007, was much sharper than in most of the 56 markets survey. India, however, topped the global rankings again, followed by emerging economies including Saudi Arabia, Brazil and China.
India's score of 123 was well below the country's record of 137 in the second half of 2006, the highest reading for any country since the survey was launched in 2005.
Egypt, which finally holds presidential elections next month, more than a year after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, also saw a leap in confidence.
James Russo, vice president, Global Consumer Insights at Nielsen, said an improving labor market had helped boost U.S. consumer morale but it was not yet clear whether the trend was sustainable as recent U.S. economic data had not been as strong, including a disappointing March jobs report.
"Furthermore, according to Nielsen's analysis, consumer households earning over $100,000 continue to generate gains in consumer spending and shopping trips, while nearly 50 percent of Americans in the lower income brackets struggle," Russo said.
"The near-term outlook for the American consumer will be heavily impacted on how the labor market behaves, especially for middle-class and lower income consumers."
Latin America was the most confident region after Asia Pacific. Asians were most optimistic about job prospects, Latin Americans were most confident about their personal finances and North Americans were most optimistic about immediate spending intentions, the survey showed.
Consumer sentiment was worst in Hungary although it improved slightly from the previous quarter. Hungary has been beset by uncertainty over whether it can secure a financial aid backstop from international lenders but there was a breakthrough last week when the EU gave the green light for talks.
Confidence was also very low in euro zone bailout recipients Greece and Portugal, which have had to impose sweeping austerity measures to tackle their debt problems, and in Spain which has become a focus of financial markets' concerns about the euro zone.
Consumer sentiment in Europe's biggest economy Germany rose slightly in the first quarter. In the UK, consumer morale improved markedly even though data last week showed the economy slipped into recession.
The survey, taken between February 10 and February 27, covered more than 28,000 consumers in 56 countries.
Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index in the first quarter, 2012 (Change from Q4, 2011 survey in brackets):
Top 10 index readings Bottom 10 index readings
India 123 (+1) Ireland/Poland 64 (+4,-8)
Saudi Arabia 119 (+6) Romania 60 (+1)
Philippines/Indonesia 118 (+1,+1) Japan 58 (+2)
Brazil/China 110 (-2,+2) Spain 53 (-3)
Thailand/Malaysia 107 (+3,+6) France 50 (-5)
UAE 105 (0) S.Korea 49 (+3)
Hong Kong 103 (+4) Croatia/Italy 45 (+2/-4)
Peru 101 (+6) Portugal 39 (+3)
Colombia/Norway 99 (+4,+1) Greece 37 (-4)
Egypt 97 (+5) Hungary 32 (+2)
Global consumer confidence average 94 (+5)
United States 92 (+9)
Germany 90 (+3)
Reporting by Susan Fenton; Editing by Sophie Walker