The average forecast for how much payrolls grew in February is identical to the actual January number, but bond-market participants, black and blue after a monthlong beating, are bracing for something much stronger.

Maybe the worst-case scenario is already priced in. Still, the prospect of a hotter-than-expected report remains more terrifying than the prospect of a surprisingly weak report is comforting to people who want interest rates to stay low.

Friday, the day the

Labor Department

will release the February

employment report

at 8:30 a.m. EST, is "a very, very significant day in the life of the bond market," said Richard Yamarone, senior economist at

Argus Research

in New York. "All eyes are peeled on this number. It's going to be the triggering device of the next move in bonds."

According to surveys by

Reuters

and

Market News

, economists' average forecast is for payrolls to swell by 245,000 in February, the same as in January. But that average is 30,000 higher than it was last week, and some economists are expecting a gain in the 300,000 to 350,000 range. The low end of the forecast range is 185,000 to 200,000.

There appears to be less agreement this month than there has been in recent months on what the broad trends of the report are likely to be. That's because no one really knows what to expect of the manufacturing sector. For 10 of the last 12 months, manufacturing payrolls contracted. But given the upturn in the last several weeks of key manufacturing indicators -- most significantly the

Purchasing Managers Index

, which indicated growth for the first time in nine months in February -- some suspect factory payrolls to swell.

Yamarone, whose forecast of 200,000 new jobs is near the low end of the range, expects that manufacturing payrolls grew by 10,000 in February, after losing an average of 23,000 jobs a month over the last 12 months. He predicts the service sector, which has been adding jobs at the rate of 229,000 a month, will cool a bit. Retail employment will abate after the holidays, construction will fall victim to inclement weather in parts of the country and the finance, insurance and real-estate sector will lose some steam, he believes.

A weaker-than-expected report could push the 30-year Treasury bond's yield back down to 5.50%, even 5.45%, Yamarone said. But if it's a barnburner, 6% is the possible damage to the long bond, which ended Wednesday at 5.70%.

Joe LaVorgna, senior economist at

Deutsche Bank Securities

, is looking for a barnburner. The lone 350,000 forecast is his, and he thinks it'll do some damage to the bond market. "I don't know why it wouldn't with the

Fed

coming back into the picture," he said, referring to the spreading belief that the central bank will raise interest rates this year.

LaVorgna's forecast calls for broad-based strength, including a 20,000 gain in manufacturing payrolls. "Any time you have a number above, say, 250,000, you're going to have pretty broad-based strength," he said.

By contrast, Carol Stone, deputy chief economist at

Nomura Securities

, doesn't think manufacturing will contribute much at all to the 230,000 new jobs she expects to see. "Manufacturing is a sector with such high rates of productivity that maybe it can recover without adding too many people," she said. She also notes that the manufacturing workweek contracted in January, and "standard practice is to lengthen the workweek first and add people later." Nomura also expects that construction employment, which has averaged growth of 24,000 a month for the last 12 months, eased in February.

But even as economists brace for another killer number, they are insisting that a slowdown is coming. "The economy can't go to the sky," LaVorgna said. "The question is, If we do get some slowing, what rate do we go to?" While some data series have slowed, "the levels they're slowing to are still very strong," he said.

The combination of sluggish growth abroad and consumer satiation at home will cause the slowdown, economists say.

"Despite the fact that we've seen some improvement in export orders lately, a lot of other economies are very sluggish," Stone said. "Europe, the U.K., Latin America are either in recession or on the verge of it. Even

Fed Chairman

Alan

Greenspan

tells us that Japan is still weakening and hasn't bottomed yet. The rest of the world is still not in good shape, and that's got to be a restraining force for us."

As for consumers, currently parting amicably with their income-tax refunds, Yamarone says they're close to getting the better of their greed. "There are only so many cars you can stick in your driveway," he said. "There are only so many houses you can build."