A quarterly confidence measure compiled by Grant Thornton from polls of U.S. business leaders shows business optimism returning to pre-recession levels.

The Grant Thornton Business Optimism Index rose from 37.6 in February to the pre-recession level of 54.5 in May. The survey of 320 senior executives from various industries found that 54 percent believe the economy will emerge from recession in the first half of 2010.

The survey found that U.S. business leaders’ sentiments toward the U.S. economy have greatly improved, with 45 percent of the respondents expecting conditions to improve over the next six months, compared to 17 percent in February 2009.

They are also more positive about the outlook for their own businesses, with 62 percent feeling optimistic about their companies’ growth over the next six months. In addition, the proportion of senior executives who said they plan to decrease staffing in the next six months saw the first drop since the recession started in November, decreasing from 45 percent in February to 30 percent in May.

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