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Dow Gains 122 on Half-Full Jobs Report

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Dow finished with a triple-digit gain Friday, fueled by a lighter-than-expected drop in February nonfarm payrolls that appeared to reassure investors about recovery in the labor market.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average added 122 points, or 1.2%, to 10,566. The S&P 500 rose 16 points, or 1.4%, to 1139, and the Nasdaq went ahead by 34 points, or 1.5%, to 2326.

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The solid finish also helped the major averages finish the week to the upside, led by a 3.9% jump in the Nasdaq. The Dow improved 2.3% since last Friday, while the S&P 500 gained 3.1% on the week.

Stocks closed near their highs of the session after an early morning report said the economy shed 36,000 jobs last month. The figure from the Labor Department came well under economists' projections for a loss of 63,000, according to consensus estimates. The unemployment rate also surprised on the upside, holding at 9.7%, though economists forecast it would climb to 9.8%.

Leading up to the release, many market observers were concerned the report would reflect steeper losses, in part because of February's heavy snowfall. The government said today that weather may have played a role in some figures, but it didn't know for certain. Though the report was modest in reflecting a flat month for hiring, the subtle loss is buoying positive sentiment among investors.

"Is it the kind of number that reflects hiring is on fire? No," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial. "It's still slow going, but it's a positive trajectory that's trending in the right direction."

Also helping matters, an afternoon report from the Federal Reserve said consumer credit rose at a 2.4% annual rate, or by nearly $5 billion, in January. Consumer credit had sustained 11 straight months of declines before today's report.

Richard Sparks, senior equities analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research, said the employment numbers and the market's late-session strength may represent a new, emboldened spirit among investors and a "shift in psychology" for the markets.

"Often, if you have a market that's prone to big drops, you'll see selling at the close, which shows a mindset of investors not wanting to be in. But this is the opposite," Sparks said. "This suggests market participants want to have exposure to risk, that they feel comfortable where the market is at and that it won't be prone to those drops."

John Canally, economist for LPL Financial, said February's steady unemployment rate increases the odds that the rate peaked at 10.1% last fall.

Alcoa (AA), Boeing (BA) and American Express (AXP) led the Dow higher.

Telecom stocks trailed the broader indices highlighted by Dow component Verizon (VZ), which was one of two blue-chip average stocks finishing the day in the red.

Shares of Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC) and Ford (F) reflected the highest volumes on the New York Stock Exchange, which finished with a listed volume of 4.1 billion.

Major financial firms showed particular strength in light of the labor market news, as the KBW Bank Index added 1.8%. Crosby said financial stocks often react positively to improving jobs numbers because any hiring improvements signal more ability to pay off consumer debts. Bank of America (BAC) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) were lending a hand to the Dow's move higher, rising 1.8% and 2.1%, respectively.

The dollar was trading lower against a basket of currencies, with the dollar index down 0.1%.

In commodities markets, crude oil for April delivery settled at $81.50 a barrel after adding $1.29, and the April gold contract gained $2.10 to settle at $1,135.20 an ounce.

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DOW 16,943.81 +28.74 0.17%
S&P 500 1,967.57 +2.89 0.15%
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