U.S. chief executive officers are feeling more confident about the economy, with more of them planning to add rather than cut jobs over the next six months, a Business Roundtable survey released on Wednesday found.

The change in mood -- CEOs had been inclined toward cutting jobs for about two years -- marked an important shift for an economy struggling to regain its footing after its worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The retail sector is leading the charge toward hiring as consumer spending begins to pick up, said Verizon Communications Inc CEO Ivan Seidenberg, chairman of the Business Roundtable, which conducts the quarterly survey.

Twenty-nine percent of U.S. CEOs told the Roundtable they plan to add jobs in the United States over the next six months, more than the 21 percent who planned to cut. That marked the first time since the first quarter of 2008 that more planned to add jobs than cut them.

The improved employment outlook is a result of increased demand, Seidenberg said on a conference call with reporters. We have seen some signals from the retail segment of our CEOs that they are looking at some hiring going on, because they see some demand picking up.

The retail sector is a key indicator of consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

This gives us confidence that the two pillars that could sustain this recovery are maybe starting to get set in place, said Boston College economics professor Bob Murphy. The recovery ultimately will depend on whether consumption picks up.

The finding follows a Friday government report showing that U.S. employers added jobs at the fastest rate seen in three years last month. Major U.S. retailers from Target Corp to Saks Inc are expected to show strong March sales growth when they release monthly results on Thursday.


Seventy-three percent of CEOs expect their companies' sales to rise over the next six months, while 47 percent plan to boost U.S. capital spending over that time.

Seidenberg noted that sales growth and capital spending, both of which improved in the first quarter, tend to rise before hiring resumes.

CEOs look for a 2.3 percent rise in real U.S. GDP in 2010, the survey found.

The overall U.S. CEO Economic Outlook Index stood at 88.9, up from 71.5 at the end of 2009 and the highest since the second quarter of 2006. The outlook index is a diffusion index, which can range from negative 50 to positive 150. A reading above 50 indicates growth; below 50 signals contraction.

Some companies continue to cut back -- business software maker CA Inc , for instance, on Tuesday said it would cut 1,000 jobs as it copes with weak profits.

Investors will get a deeper look into how corporate America is doing next week, as big U.S. companies including Alcoa Inc , JPMorgan Chase & Co , Google Inc and General Electric Co report their first-quarter results.

Business Roundtable member companies, 105 of which answered the survey between March 15 and 30, generate nearly $6 trillion in collective revenue and employ more than 12 million people.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Dave Zimmerman and Robert MacMillan)