Small businesses grew more confident in the economy's future in December, marking a fourth straight month of improvement on a more optimistic outlook for business conditions and real estate gains, a survey released on Tuesday showed.

The National Federation of Independent Business said its Small Business Optimism Index rose 1.8 points to 93.8.

Eight of the index's 10 components were either improved or flat. About half the gain was due to reduced concern about business conditions six months into the future, the NFIB said.

The index is still in recession territory, however, 6 points below the pre-recession average and more than 10 points below the same point in the recovery from the 2001 recession.

The gains in the index are supportive of the view that economic growth will pick up in 2012, but the gains are not likely to be substantial unless the index rises more sharply, the business group said.

The NFIB reported earlier this month that small businesses cut staff in December. The percent of businesses reporting reductions in employment remained relatively low, but the percentage increasing employment, though larger, did not offset the losses and remains historically low for an expansion.

(Reporting By Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Andrew Hay)