Leading economic indicators point to quicker growth

A gauge of future U.S. economic activity rose in December, pointing to an improvement in growth despite an ongoing political fight in Washington over fiscal policy.

The private Conference Board said on Thursday its Leading Economic Index gained 0.5 percent to 93.9 last month, after being unchanged in November.

A drop in new claims for jobless benefits helped drive the gain, as did an increase in new building permits.

"A pickup in domestic growth is now more likely," said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected the index to gain 0.3 percent.

The Conference Board had previously said its leading index fell 0.2 percent in November, but on Thursday it revised the reading.

Many economists have worried that a debate in Washington over taxes and government spending - which was particularly raucous in December - would lead businesses and consumers to hold back on spending, hurting the economy.

The Conference Board's index, however, suggested the economy was picking up speed despite ongoing uncertainty over fiscal policy.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Neil Stempleman)