NEW YORK: US consumers are becoming increasingly gloomy about the nation's economic prospects, with confidence plunging to a five-year low during March.

Slumping house prices and soaring fuel costs have depressed the Conference Board index of consumer sentiment to 64.5, it poorest showing since the 61.4 reading in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq.

The business-backed research group said the latest reading was far below the 73.0 expected by analysts. In addition, the forward-looking expectations index fell to 47.9, the weakest performance in 34 years.

The consumer index has been weakening since July, and Conference Board research director Lynn Franco can offer few crumbs of comfort.

She says: "Consumers' outlook for business conditions, the job market and their income prospects is quite pessimistic and suggests further weakening may be on the horizon.”

A separate University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to its lowest level in sixteen years earlier this month.

The figures could prompt the Federal Reserve to further trim interest rates, following the recent 0.75% cut to 2.25%.

Economist Bernard Baumohl, executive director of the Economic Outlook Group said consumers' pessimism "reflects the great anxiety that households have because there are just so many uncertainties that everyone faces".

Data sourced from BBC Online; additional content by WARC staff