US Adds 236K Jobs, Unemployment Falls to 7.7 Pct.

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The economy is also benefiting from the Federal Reserve’s drive to keep interest rates at record lows. Lower borrowing rates have made it easier for Americans to buy homes and cars and for companies to expand.

The Fed has said it plans to keep the benchmark rate it controls near zero at least until the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.5 percent, as long as the inflation outlook remains mild.

Friday’s jobs report isn’t expected to move up the Fed’s timetable for any rate increase.

“This may not yet be the substantial improvement in the labor market outlook that the Fed is looking for, but it’s moving in the right direction,” Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients.

So far, higher gas prices and a Jan. 1 increase in Social Security taxes haven’t caused Americans to sharply cut back on spending.

Across-the-board government spending cuts also kicked in March 1 after the White House and Congress failed to reach a deal to avoid them. Those cuts will likely lead to furloughs and layoffs in coming weeks.

The impact of the tax hikes is partly being offset by higher pay: Hourly wages rose 4 cents to $23.82 last month. Wages have risen 2.1 percent over the past year, slightly ahead of inflation.

A big source of strength has also been home sales and residential construction: New-home sales jumped 16 percent in January to the highest level since July 2008. And builders started work on the most homes last year since 2008.

Home prices rose by the most in more than six years in the 12 months that ended in January. Higher prices tend to make homeowners feel wealthier and more likely to spend.

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