U.S. consumer sentiment edged lower in early April as a sluggish stock market, a slight rise in unemployment and Mideast violence weighed on Americans' outlook for the future despite a firming economy. 

The University of Michigan's preliminary consumer sentiment index for April slipped to 94.4 from 95.7 in March. Forecasts were for a rise to 96.5. The data are released directly to market subscribers only and were obtained by Reuters. 

The current conditions index, which tracks consumers' views about their present financial situation, edged up to 100.9 from 100.4 in March. But the expectations index, which measures attitudes about the 12 months ahead, fell to 90.2 from 92.7 in March. 

Investors watch consumer confidence indexes because they can offer hints on the future direction of consumer spending, which underpins two-thirds of the U.S. economy. Analysts don't expect spending to surge in coming months because consumer demand held up throughout the recession in 2001. 

The preliminary consumer sentiment survey is based on telephone interviews with roughly 250 Americans across the country on personal finances, business conditions and buying conditions. It is rounded out to 500 calls by month's end.