A Conference Board survey today reporting that American consumers were less optimistic about their financial outlook in December is fueling concerns that the economy may be heading toward a downturn. "This is a troubling sign," says economics reporter Bernard Baumohl. "Since spending by consumers makes up more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, any dip in the level of their confidence can depress the economy. Consumers are clearly stressed out by being overextended and the perception that job prospects and income growth are very poor. The Federal Reserve Board will probably have to lower interest rates sometime early next year. That may ease some of the consumer debt burden and might encourage companies to hire more workers." The report, based on a nationwide survey of 5,000 households, showed that the consumer confidence index fell to 98.7 in December, down from 101.6 in November.