US employment gains seen accelerating in February

WASHINGTON: US employers likely stepped up hiring in February, in a sign of labor market strength that could further ease fears the economy is heading into recession and allow the US Federal Reserve to gradually raise interest rates this year.

Nonfarm payrolls probably increased by 190,000 jobs last month in the US Labor Department's report due on Friday, with the unemployment rate holding at an eight-year low of 4.9 percent, according to a Reuters survey of economists.

The labor market gained 151,000 jobs in January, after the warmest temperatures in years boosted hiring in weather-sensitive sectors like construction, helping payrolls to rise by an average 279,000 jobs per month in the fourth quarter last year.

"The employment data should reinforce that the recession debate is premature and overdone, and could strengthen the case for the Fed not waiting too long," said Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody's Analytics in Westchester, Pennsylvania.

Fears of a recession in the wake of poor economic reports in December and slowing growth in China sparked a global stock market rout at the start of the year, causing financial market conditions to tighten.

Financial markets have priced out bets of an interest rates rise at the Fed's March 15-16 policy meeting and the probabilities for rate increases for the rest of the year remain rather small.

Significant data such as consumer and business spending improved strongly in January though, leading to predictions that economic growth in the first quarter could rise by at least a 2.5 percent at an annualised rate. The economy grew at a 1.0 percent pace in the fourth quarter of 2105.

Economists say the improved growth outlook, together with signs of inflation creeping up, could prompt the US central bank to lift borrowing costs in June. The Fed raised its key overnight interest rate in December for the first time in nearly a decade.