NEW YORK — Soaring gas prices and weakening job prospects made shoppers gloomier about the economy in May, sending a key barometer of consumer sentiment to its lowest level in almost 16 years.

The New York-based Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index dropped to 57.2, down from a revised 62.8 in April. Economists surveyed by Thomson Financial/IFR had expected a reading of 60.

The May reading marks the fifth straight month of decline and is the lowest since the index registered 54.6 in October 1992.

Economists closely watch sentiment readings since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation’s economic activity.

“Weakening business and job conditions coupled with growing pessimism about the short-term future have further depleted consumers’ confidence in the overall state of the economy,” Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board’s Consumer Research Center, said in a statement.

Franco said consumers’ worries about inflation, fueled by increasing prices at the pump, are now at an “all-time high” and are likely to rise further in the months ahead. She added that based on consumers’ outlook on the economy, she believes there’s little likelihood of a turnaround in sentiment in the next few months.

The Conference Board’s index that measures shoppers’ current assessment of economic conditions declined to 74.4 in May from 81.9 in April. The index that gauges their outlook over the next six months declined to 45.7 from 50.0 in April.

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