NEW YORK - Gasoline prices are high, food's more expensive, and the job market's cold, but the United States may still avoid a recession.

That was the message yesterday from a private business group whose index of leading economic indicators defied expectations and inched higher in April.

The New York-based Conference Board said its forecast of future economic activity rose 0.1 percent in April, matching a 0.1 percent increase in March. Economists had expected a 0.1 decrease in April.

The index is designed to forecast economic activity in the next three to six months based on 10 economic components, including stock prices, building permits, and initial claims for unemployment benefits.

"These data certainly reflect a weak economy, but not one in recession," said Ken Goldstein, labor economist at the Conference Board. The small increases in March and April, which followed five months of decline, could be a signal the economy may not weaken further, he said.

Six of 10 leading indicators the Conference Board measures rose in April, including stock prices, interest rate spreads, and housing permits. Those increases more than offset the sharp declines in average weekly hours worked and consumer spending.

The six-month rate of decline for April, which economists look to as a predictor of recessions, was negative 1.2 percent, which points to sluggish growth at best, said economist Dana Saporta of German investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Ltd.