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Stocks Move Higher Following Strong Job Growth

By STEVE ROTHWELL

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ A burst of hiring in February pushed stocks higher on Wall Street.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 67.58 points, or 0.5 percent, to 14,397.07. The index surpassed its previous record close Tuesday and logged a sixth straight increase Friday.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 6.92 points, or 0.5 percent, to 1,551.18. The Nasdaq composite advanced 12.28 points, or 0.4 percent, to 3,244.37.

U.S. employers added 236,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent in January, the Labor Department reported. That's far better than the 156,000 job gains and unemployment rate of 7.8 percent that economists surveyed by FactSet expected.

The strong job growth shows that employers are confident about the economy despite higher taxes and government spending cuts.

Optimism that hiring is picking up has been one of the factors bolstering the stock market this year. Stocks have also gained on evidence that the housing market is recovering and company earnings continue to growing.

Stocks have also been boosted by continuing economic stimulus from the Federal Reserve.

The U.S. central bank began buying bonds in January 2009 and is still purchasing $85 billion each month in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. That has kept interest rates near historic lows, reducing borrowing costs and encouraging investors to move money out of conservative investments like bonds and into stocks.

Investors have also been pondering what the Fed's next move will be. That question was in especially sharp focus Friday after the government reported the surge in hiring last month.

Andres Garcia-Amaya at JPMorgan Asset Management said that the strong jobs report may heighten speculation that the Fed will end its stimulus sooner than investors had anticipated, which would be a negative for the stock market.

"If the economy maintains or increases the pace of job creation....that could change the Fed's stance," said Garcia-Amaya. "That could mean that the Fed could take the 'punch bowl' away."

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