NEW YORK — A burst of hiring in February pushed stocks higher on Wall Street.
The Dow Jones industrial average gained 48 points, or 0.3 percent, to 14,378 as of 11:54 a.m. today. The index is on track for its sixth straight increase.
The Standard & Poor's 500 rose four points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,546. The Nasdaq composite advanced seven points, or 0.2 percent, to 3,237.
U.S. employers added 236,000 jobs 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 today 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 may 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 Mr. Garcia-Amaya. “That could mean that the Fed could take the ‘punch bowl’ away.”
The Dow has gained 9.7 percent this year and is trading at record levels, having broken its previous record of 14,164 on Tuesday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index is up 8.6 percent since the start of the year, and remains 1.1 percent short of its all-time high close of 1,565 set Oct. 9, 2007.
The jobs report strengthens the case of stock market bulls, who say the economy is gaining momentum following a long and tepid recovery after the financial crisis and Great Recession, said JJ Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at TD Ameritrade.
“It gives hope to those that say this rally isn't just about the Fed, it's about the economy recovering,” said Mr. Kinahan. “It's giving people confidence that maybe the economy is turning the corner.”
Twenty one stocks in the 30-member Dow advanced, with McDonald's logging the biggest percentage point gain. The fast-food restaurant chain reported that a key sales figure fell 3.3 percent in February, but the decline wasn't as bad as analysts were expecting. The stock advanced $1.54 to $98.63.
The Dow is on course to advance for a third straight week.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price, rose to 2.05 percent from 2 percent Thursday.
Among stocks making big moves;
— Pandora gained $1.94, or 17 percent, to $13.66 after the Internet radio company issued a strong profit forecast and said its mobile business was improving. Pandora also said its CEO, Joseph Kennedy, would leave.
— Skullcandy fell $1.51 to $5.21, a loss of 20 percent, after the headphone maker projected a big loss and drop in sales for the current quarter, and said this year's results will likely be worse than in 2012.
— Foot Locker fell $2.17 to $33.14 even after reporting that its fiscal fourth-quarter profit jumped 28 percent. An extra sales week helped boost earnings, but analysts were expecting more.