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Jobless rate eases, providing boost

NEW YORK – The economy’s most vexing problem, unemployment, is showing the first signs of easing. And Wall Street is celebrating.

Major stock indexes jumped more than 1 percent Friday after the government said the nation’s unemployment rate unexpectedly fell in July for the first time in 15 months and that employers cut fewer jobs. Bond prices fell, driving yields higher as investors left the safety of Treasuries.

The Labor Department report handed investors the best evidence yet that the economy could be climbing out of the recession. Analysts widely consider unemployment the biggest obstacle to a recovery in the economy, which is driven by consumer spending.

The surprise figures injected new life in a monthlong rally and provided validation for traders who have been betting since March that the economy is healing. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 114 points to cap its fourth straight weekly gain. The Dow is at its highest level since early November.

“It really gave the market the proof that it needed to see,” said Burt White, chief investment officer at LPL Financial in Boston.

The report is often the most anticipated bit of economic news each month on Wall Street and nervousness about what it would reveal held stocks to modest moves most of the week. The exception came Monday when Ford Motor Co. said its monthly sales rose for the first time in nearly two years because the government’s cash for clunkers program was drawing customers. That, and good news about manufacturing, construction and banking, sent the Standard & Poor’s 500 index over 1,000 for the first time in nine months.

With the pop Friday, the S&P 500 index is up 14.9 percent in only four weeks and 49.4 percent from a 12-year low in early March.

The Dow Jones U.S. Total Stock Market Index – which measures nearly all U.S.-based companies – ended at 10,416.26, up 269.24, or 2.7 percent, for the week. A year ago, the index was at 12,905.73.