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Friday's jobs data holds key to Feb rally extending into March

Labour Department report expected to show employers having added some 230,000 positions last month

Anecdotal evidence of wage inflation is mounting as certain US firms increase their employees' pay and hourly wages.

AFTER a January disappearance, the US stock-market rally returned with a vengeance in February and should carry through into March, as long as jobs data does not change the outlook for the economy or interest rates.

US stocks finished the week more or less unchanged, but the broad Standard & Poor's 500 scored the largest monthly percentage gain in February of any month since 2011.

A Labour Department report on Friday is expected to show that US employers added about 230,000 positions in February, continuing a long streak of flourishing growth. But traders are looking beyond measures of job quantity to measures of job quality, said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial.

Now that the unemployment rate is within the Federal Reserve's comfort zone, the "sub data points" in the jobs report have become important indicators of the US central bank's likely next move, said Ms Krosby.

"How long is the work week? What type of jobs are being created? Have wages moved higher?" are among the questions that investors are asking, Ms Krosby said.

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Wage inflation is perhaps the most critical element. In an economy that depends on consumption, wage growth must be strong enough to improve the lot of the American consumer but not so strong that it forces the Fed to fight inflation.

Anecdotal evidence of wage inflation is mounting. Last week, TJX became the latest major US employer to slate a pay increase for its employees. Employees at discount retailer TJ Maxx and its sister stores Marshalls and HomeGoods will earn at least US$9 an hour, considerably higher than the minimum wage in most US states.

This is the latest sign that - after years of people snatching any job they can find - employers may now be competing for the services of more choosy candidates. Wal-Mart Stores Inc, one of the biggest employers in the United States, set the pace when it boosted its minimum wage to US$10 an hour.

Wage inflation could be a decisive factor in the timing of the Fed's interest-rate hike, and the projected timing of the hike has become a decisive factor in stock behaviour.

US stocks rose last Tuesday after Fed chair Janet Yellen assured a congressional hearing that there would be no hikes for a "few" meetings. Shares fell back in subsequent sessions when other Fed officials stated that a hike was likely by autumn and could even come this summer.

This week, the speculation on timing is likely to continue with several speeches scheduled during what one Fed watcher called "open mic season" ahead of the media "blackout" on the March meeting.

Another reason to expect a March rally is the power of momentum in markets. Just as oil prices kept falling beyond almost any market partici-pants' targets earlier this year, so stocks will likely outstrip even the most bullish expectations before the momentum runs out.

The Nasdaq Composite is a short distance from the all-time highs of the dotcom boom, sitting at levels almost nobody thought possible - the first or second time around.

One thing that's different about the Nasdaq's rally this time is the leadership. This rally was led by one extremely profitable company rather than dozens - or hundreds - of money-losing dreamers.

Before this rally ends, Apple could be the world's first US$1 trillion company. Last week, the Cupertino, California-based company whetted technology bulls' appetites further with an assignation for a March 9 event. While the smartphone maker maintained its cryptic policy on the nature of the event, everyone knew what was coming: the Apple Watch, Apple's first new product category since the iPad tablet.

As earnings season winds down, some of the biggest winners were also in the riskiest and most economically sensitive areas. Companies in and around the housing market, such as luxury builder Toll Brothers and do-it-yourself shops Home Depot and Lowe's, were particularly strong.

While recent counts of used and new home sales were somewhat subdued, some analysts say these companies' performances are signs of pent-up demand for new homes. Now that jobs are much easier to find, young adults who lodged with in-laws or parents during the Great Recession are seeking to fly the coop.

"We've been running well, well below the natural household replacement rate," said Eric Marshall, portfolio manager at Hodges Capital in Dallas. In addition to new household formation, "natural attrition" occurs when "houses become too old, are destroyed by flood, fire (or other disasters)", Mr Marshall said.

In the short term, the stock market looks primed for more gains, but strategists aren't so sure about the balance of 2015.

"While there's been a short-term deal with Greece, I don't think anyone should be under any illusion that we're closer to solving problems there than we were three weeks ago or three months ago," said Oliver Pursche, chief executive of broker dealer Bruderman Brothers.

To Ms Krosby of Prudential, only the arrival of rate hikes will reveal how much of the six-year rally was attributable entirely to Fed policy.

The question is: "How much of the push up in risk assets was due to the liquidity from US quantitative easing versus the fundamentals? We have to be paying attention to that."

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