ByJohn S. McClenahen Following five consecutive months of declines, the consumer confidence index compiled by the Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, rebounded this month. The index now stands at 84.1 (1985=100), up four-and-one-half percentage points from October's 79.6. "The rebound in expectations suggests consumers do not expect economic conditions to become worse," says Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center. In fact, the data for November's index show the percentage of consumers anticipating an improvement in business conditions during the next six months at 19.9%, up from 19.3% in October. And the percentage of consumers expecting conditions to deteriorate fell to 11.4% this month, down from 14.3% last month. Manufacturing executives and economists pay close attention to consumer confidence, since consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of all U.S. economic activity. "While we are hesitant to read too much into fluctuations in consumer confidence, this data is consistent with our view that, buoyed by [home-mortgage refinancing], consumer spending will hold up in the fourth quarter and the holiday season might come in on the strong side of expectations," says Gerald D. Cohen, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. Looking back one month, sales of new, one-family homes in October fell 4.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.007 million, estimate the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. However, last month's mark is considered to be strong by economists -- and was a dramatic 16.4% higher than the October 2001 rate of 865,000 sales.