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Hiring surge pulls in 313K workers

WASHINGTON (AP)  U.S. employers went on a hiring binge in February, adding 313,000 jobs, amid rising business confidence lifted by the Trump administration's tax cuts and a resilient global economy.

The surprisingly robust hiring, reported by the Labor Department on Friday, was the strongest in 1 years.

It was accompanied by the biggest surge in 15 years in the number of people either working or looking for work. That kept the nation's unemployment rate unchanged for a fifth straight month at 4.1 percent.

At the same time, average wage growth slowed to 2.6 percent in February from a year earlier. That was down from January's revised pace of 2.8 percent, which had spooked investors because it raised fears of inflation.

The hiring boom caught many economists off guard, because they expected a smaller  though still healthy  increase. Job gains typically slow as the unemployment rate falls, because companies run out of workers to hire. 

The economy has expanded for 104 straight months, or nearly nine years, the third-largest expansion on record, and hiring often declines as recessions fade further into the past.

Yet job growth has accelerated in recent months. Companies have added an average of 242,000 jobs a month over the past three months, above 2017's pace of 182,000. 

"The February employment report was unambiguously strong, confirming that the U.S. labor market is on fire," said Michelle Girard, chief U.S. economist at NatWest Markets. "The pace of job growth is gaining momentum  a very impressive development at this stage of the economic cycle." 

The Trump administration's tax cuts appear to have lifted optimism among consumers and businesses. U.S. employers have also benefited from a strengthened global economy. And consumers are more confident than they have been since 2000. 

Investors celebrated the news, sending the Dow Jones industrial average up 390 points in early afternoon trading. The bull market reached its ninth anniversary Friday, with market indexes nearly quadrupling since March 2009.

The muted wage growth is a relief to Wall Street, because faster raises could spur higher inflation and additional interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve. 

The picture drawn by Friday's jobs report is a mixed one for the Fed, which seeks to raise short-term interest rates at just the right pace: enough to forestall inflation but not so fast as to slow economic growth. 

The Fed is considered certain to raise rates when it next meets in two weeks. The question is whether it will do so a total of three times this year  or, in light of the job market's strength and the prospect of a pickup in inflation, four times. 

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