The Conference Board's Index of Leading Economic Indicators, a key gauge of U.S. economic activity, rose for the second consecutive month in November, suggesting that the worst of the economic downturn is over.

The New York-based Conference Board said its Index moved up a better-than-expected 0.5 percent last month to 109.7 following a revised 0.1 percent increase in October. Analysts had forecast a 0.3 percent gain.

The index measures where the overall U.S. economy is headed in the next three to six months. It stood at 100 in 1996, its base year.

"The recession is not getting more intense," said Conference Board economist Michael Fort. "These increases bring the level of this series back to where it was in August."

The improvement in the index in October and November indicated that the economic fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington had faded, the Conference Board said.

If the pattern continues, an economic recovery in the first half of next year is possible, though not guaranteed, Fort said.

The Conference Board said six of the 10 indicators that make up the leading index rose in November. The positive contributors included stock prices, building permits and money supply.

Among the negative indicators were average weekly manufacturing hours and manufacturers' new orders for consumer goods.

The coincident index, which measures current economic activity, slid 0.2 percent in November to 115.5. The index of lagging indicators, which reflects changes that have already occurred, fell 0.7 percent last month to 103.1.

The Conference Board is a nonprofit research and business group, with more than 2,700 corporate and other members around the world.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.