Employment rose by 243,000 in February, faster than analysts had expected, while wages rose at their fastest rate since 2001.

The number of net new jobs in the economy was up from 170,000 in January, 20,000 lower than initially forecast.

Most economists estimate that the US economy needs to generate around 150,000 new jobs each month to absorb new workers entering the labour market.

The figures provided other indications that the labour market is in good health. Average hourly earnings rose by 0.3 per cent. Compared to the same month last year they are now 3.5 per cent higher, the fastest increase since September 2001.

The unemployment rate nudged up from 4.7 to 4.8 per cent.

The figures will add to confidence that consumer spending in the US is likely to remain robust in the first quarter of the year. Many expect consumption torise at an annualised pace of around 5 per cent,following a sluggish end to last year.

Wages have failed to keep pace with inflation in recent months, but the latest rise in average hourly earnings suggests that the bargaining position of employees may be starting to improve.

The exhuberance of the consumer has been a mixed blessing for the US economy, keeping growth strong but at the cost of mounting imbalances. The figures showed the US trade deficit hitting a new record and economists expect the current account deficit to reach 7 per cent of GDP.

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