Consumer confidence soared in March at an unprecedented pace, the Conference Board reports.

The Board's Consumer Confidence Index rose to 81 in March from 59.4 in February - the single largest month-to-month gain in the history of the survey, the New York-based private business research organization said. The index was set at 100 in 1985.The improvement in consumer confidence reflects a sharp rise in optimism about the future, the Board said.

"However, consumers continue to express increasing concern about ongoing economic conditions. Spending plans are somewhat stronger than in recent months," the Board said.

The monthly survey, covering 5,000 households throughout the United States, is conducted for the Board by National Family Opinion Inc. of Toledo, Ohio.

"People continue to have concern about jobs," the survey said. "In March, only 10.3 percent of respondents report that jobs are plentiful, about the same number as in the previous month."

"Some 35.5 percent complain that jobs are hard to get, a larger number than previously. Also, more respondents than a month earlier say that general business conditions are bad," the survey added.

"However, in looking ahead to the next six months, people are appreciably more optimistic than last time. The `Expectations' component of the Index registered 100.4 in March, up from 63.6 in February."

More survey participants said business conditions will improve in the months ahead - 27.9 percent in March up from 14.4 percent in February. Also, a much larger number expect more jobs to become available - 20.7 percent up from 11.6 percent.

"Just as the onset of the gulf crisis provoked a significant decline in confidence last summer, America's victory in the gulf has brought about a sharp improvement in the consumer's spirits," said Fabian Linden, executive director of Board's Consumer Research Center.

"With higher expectations for the future, consumers may be more likely to spend. This could well contribute to a somewhat quicker-than-expected recovery of the economy. However, the notion that the recent abrupt improvement in confidence will catapult us out of recession is excessively optimistic."