ByJohn S. McClenahen Although the Conference Board says U.S. consumers are now more confident about the economy than they have been in months, December 2003 data released Jan. 28 showed durable goods orders and new home starts were unexpectedly weak. New orders for appliances, autos and other manufactured goods designed to last at least three years decreased $100 million in December to $181.4 billion, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported. Economists and analysts generally had expected a 2% rise from November to December rather than the essentially flat performance that did occur. Computers and electronic products posted the largest decrease, falling $800 million (2.7%) to $28.8 billion. Meanwhile, sales of new single-family homes in December were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.06 million, 5.1% below the revised November rate of 1.117 million according to data jointly released by the Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A December rate as high as 1.13 million had been expected.