Chief executives' confidence in the nation's economy, which had slipped to 66 in the final quarter of 2003, surged to 73 in the first quarter of 2004, the Conference Board reported. This is the highest reading in 20 years, when the measure reached 74 in the final quarter of 1983. A reading of more than 50 points reflects more positive than negative responses.

The Conference Board's quarterly measure of CEO Confidence covers more than 100 CEOs in a variety of industries.

CEOs' overall assessment of current conditions improved dramatically in the first quarter of 2004, with the measure of current economic conditions increasing to 78 from 68. More than 90 percent of CEOs claimed current economic conditions have improved, up from more than 88 percent last quarter. In assessing their own industries, the increase was also dramatic -- to 71 from 60. Close to 78 percent said conditions have improved, up from 63 percent in the prior survey.

In looking ahead to the next six months, CEOs' expectations were substantially more optimistic than last quarter. Business leaders' outlook for the economy improved to 72 from 66. Their expectations for their own industries also posted a healthy gain with the measure rising to 70 from 63.

Half of all CEOs surveyed anticipated an increase in employment levels in their industry, up significantly from less than 16 percent a year ago. The proportion of CEOs anticipating a decrease fell dramatically to less than 12 percent from about 47 percent in the first quarter of 2003.