U.S. consumer sentiment stagnated in early September as doubts about the economy and the job market persisted, a report indicated on Friday.

The University of Michigan's (search) index of consumer confidence moved lower to a preliminary reading of 95.8 from 95.9 in August, according to sources who saw the subscription-only report. Analysts had looked for a rise to 96.5.

U.S. economic growth weakened in the second quarter and forecasters are now trying to determine whether that softness was transitory or marked the start of a longer-term trend.

The answer to that question will determine the pace at which the Federal Reserve (search) is likely to raise interest rates, with widespread implications for consumers and businesses.

Treasury prices dipped after the consumer confidence report proved to be not as weak as some traders were betting, while the dollar gained modestly.

A separate measure of U.S. economic performance from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (search), which covers a broad range of indicators in an effort to forecast turning points in growth, pointed to tough times ahead.

ECRI's weekly leading index slipped to 131.7 in the week ended Sept. 10 compared with 132.5 in the previous week.

"The continued weakness in a number of components of the index suggests that it's more than just high oil prices that are ailing the economy," said Lakshman Achuthan, managing director at ECRI.

"It's an open question whether this lackluster growth gives way to more serious downturn in 2005 or we have a reacceleration in growth. We don't know yet," he said.

Oil prices continued to be a major source of concern, with crude costs surging near $45 a barrel on Friday amid worries the ongoing storm season in the U.S. Gulf would continue to hamper energy production and imports.

An extended spike in oil would put the Fed in the curious position of having to raise borrowing costs just as the economy grows more vulnerable.

The central bank is widely expected to lift benchmark interest rates by a quarter percentage point when it meets next Tuesday, but there is disagreement as to the likely path of monetary policy beyond that point.