msnbc.com news services
updated 4/1/2011 4:54:03 PM ET 2011-04-01T20:54:03

A drop in the unemployment rate to a two-year low sent U.S. stocks higher Friday.

The Labor Department said the unemployment rate fell to 8.8 percent, the lowest since March 2009, as companies added workers at the fastest two-month pace since before the recession began. Approximately 216,000 new jobs were created last month, offsetting layoffs by local governments. Economists had expected the unemployment rate to remain at 8.9 percent.

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"We are clearly seeing a breakout in the labor market," said Paul Zemsky, the head of asset allocation at ING Investment Management. "The jobless recovery is ending and we are moving into a job expansion stage of the economy."

The report helped send the Dow Jones industrial average to a new 2011 high during early trading. Stocks then pared those gains in the afternoon as oil prices hit new 30-month highs. Crude oil jumped $1.22 to settle at $107.94.

The Dow's 100-point gain early in the day seemed unwarranted because the employment report was just slightly better than expected, said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago. "There's a relief that the job gains were continuing, but it's not a huge surprise," he said. "It's worth maybe 40 points on the Dow."

Stocks rose across the market. Eight of the 10 company groups that make up the S&P 500 index moved higher, led by a 0.9 percent rise in industrials shares.

The Dow rose 56.99 points, or 0.5 percent, to 12,376.72. The average of 30 large company stocks gained 1.3 percent for the week.

The Dow has already risen 6.9 percent this year. That's the best start since 1999.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 6.58, or 0.5 percent, to 1,332.41. The Nasdaq composite rose 8.53, or 0.3 percent, to 2,789.60.

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All three indexes made gains for the second week in a row. The S&P 500 rose 1.42 percent and the Nasdaq 1.7 percent.

"This jobs report shows that we are in the early stages of a sustainable recovery in employment, and that is what's letting the market put the recent correction behind us," said Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at Federated Investors.

The Institute of Supply Management reported a slight slowing in manufacturing growth during March. The trade group's index of manufacturing activity slipped to 61.2 from February's 61.4. The drop was largely expected after manufacturing hit its highest level since May 2004 during February.

The Commerce Department delivered more bad news on the construction industry. The government said construction spending fell in February to its lowest level since 1999.

Ford rose 1.7 percent after the carmaker said sales jumped 16 percent in March as its new fuel-efficient cars proved popular. Ford also outsold General Motors in the U.S, the second time that's happened since 1998.

General Motors gained 4.5 percent after the company said its U.S. sales rose 11 percent in March.

Raising interest rates by the end of 2011 should be "on the table," depending on how the economy improves over the next few months, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Plosser said Friday.

"In my mind it is definitely on the table, but it will depend in my view how things play out over the next few months," said Plosser, a voter on the Fed's policy-setting committee and an inflation hawk.

"If inflation picks up and the economy continues to grow above trend, and inflation begins to pick up and expectations look like they're edging up, it will be appropriate in my view that we take appropriate policy responses to that," Plosser said.

Nasdaq OMX Group and IntercontinentalExchange said Friday that they are making a bid for NYSE Euronext, offering what they say is a 19 percent premium to the deal the company struck with the operator of the German stock exchange. NYSE shares jumped 12.6 percent.

Two shares rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was 4 billion shares.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Data: Highs and lows of the bull market

Photos: Pain at the Pump

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  1. Randy Bish / Politicalcartoons.com
    Above: Slideshow (8) Pain at the pump
  2. Cam Cardow / Ottawa Citizen, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (9) Trapped in the economy
  3. Mike Keefe / The Denver Post, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (7) Where's my job?

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