US STOCKS-Wall St set to extend rally as private hiring picks up

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 06, 2013 14:00 hrs

* Futures up: S&P 7.5 pts, Dow 57 pts, Nasdaq 7.75 pts

* Rally looks set to continue after Dow record on Tuesday

* Private sector employment gains by 198,000 in Feb

By Leah Schnurr

NEW YORK, March 6 (Reuters) - Wall Street was set to drive the rally further on Wednesday, the day after the Dow set a new record, as hiring by companies rose strongly last month.

Signs of a strengthening U.S. economy, continued support from the Federal Reserve, and fairly attractive valuations compared with other assets have helped U.S. equities rally this year.

On Tuesday, the Dow ended at 14,253.77, breaking through October 2007's record close of 14,164.53. For the year, the Dow is up more than 8 percent. The S&P has gained 8 percent in the first three months of the year and is less than 2 percent below its record close.

The larger S&P 1500 has already reached record highs, thanks to help from smaller-cap companies.

"I think this is a happiness hangover," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

"What's happening today is probably people that had been extremely risk-averse during the roller coaster ride are now feeling comfortable and, sadly, that's really not the time to buy in when we're hitting new highs."

Forrest said investor attention should start to turn to the labor market, with the closely watched non-farm payroll report due on Friday. Despite signs of strength in some areas of the economy, the labor market has been healing only slowly.

But an early look at the jobs market on Wednesday was surprisingly strong, with companies adding 198,000 jobs last month, above estimates for 170,000. January's job gain was also revised up to 215,000. Futures added to gains following the data.

"The ongoing level of the labor market recovery continues to impress investors and that is once again reinforced by these numbers," said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co LLC in New York.

"Manufacturers and business leaders are telling us that the demand has picked up, that they are short of inventory and that they are adding workers."

S&P 500 futures were up 7.5 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 57 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 7.75 points.

Overnight in Europe, stock markets rose to their highest since the 2008 financial crisis. The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan are all expected to stick to ultra-easy monetary policy at meetings this week.

Other U.S. data on tap includes factory orders for January and the Fed's Beige Book of economic conditions.

EU antitrust regulators fined Microsoft 561 million euros ($731 million) for breaking a promise to offer European consumers a choice of web browser. Shares were off 0.5 percent at $28.20 in pre-market trading.

Staples tumbled 2.9 percent to $12.90 after the company reported lower-than-expected quarterly revenue and forecast weak full-year earnings.

Shares of drone maker Aerovironment slumped 28.9 percent to $15.43 after the company cut its full-year forecast on delays in government orders.

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