U.S. consumer sentiment improved in early January on steady energy prices, better job conditions, and hefty stock gains in early 2006, a report showed Friday.

The University of Michigan's preliminary January index of consumer sentiment rose for a third straight month to 93.4 from December's final reading of 91.5, according to sources who saw the subscription-only report.

Wall Street economists polled by Reuters on average had forecast to have climbed to 92.5 in early January.

The survey's expectations gauge increased to 81.5 in early January from 80.2 in late December.

The index of current conditions rose to 112.0 from 109.1 at the end of December.

Confidence measures are often used as a gauge of future spending patterns. Consumer spending makes up roughly two-thirds of overall U.S. economic activity, and is seen as an indication of strength or weakness in economic growth.