Job creation moved forward again in November, with the U.S. economy adding a better-than-expected 203,000 to the employment rolls in news that could cloud the future of monetary policy.
The unemployment rate fell to 7 percent, a move that could trigger the Federal Reserve and outgoing Chairman Ben Bernanke into action on its monthly liquidity-infusion program.
"The driver for the (Fed) is the headline unemployment rate, which we continue to predict will result in a mere $5 billion reduction in the flow of security purchases at the December meeting," Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak, said in a note.
"Mr. Bernanke can support that decision with evidence of what appears to be sustainable improvement in the headline reading and point to the micro statistics as reasoning to delay the onset of any increase in the fed funds rate into 2016 or beyond," he added.
Economists were expecting the Bureau of Labor Statistics to report 180,000 new jobs created in November, down from an initially reported 204,000 in October. The unemployment rate was expected to decline a notch to 7.2 percent from 7.3 percent.
An alternative rate that includes underemployed and discouraged workers fell sharply, from 13.8 percent to 13.2 percent.
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Stock futures surged higher following the report after an initial dip. Bond yields jumped, with the 10-year yield moving to 2.88 percent.
The upside surprise could pressure the Federal Reserve into easing the throttle on its $85 billion a month on bond purchases known as quantitative easing. The central bank has been watching labor developments closely, looking for stability that could allow it to begin to exit—or "taper," in market vernacular—its historically unprecedented easing policy.
"I hope (the market is) giving its permission to taper, because it's absurd to be assuming or hoping that bad news is good news," said Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab. "We're past the point where we should have ripped the Band-Aid on this. If anything, this has been holding back growth."
Unemployment rate declines previously reflected more a continued generational low in labor force participation than job market strength. But the participation rate ticked higher in November to 63 percent after hovering around a 35-year low.
Total joblessness fell below 11 million for the first time since November 2008, while total employment swelled by 818,000 as furloughed federal workers went back to work after the government shutdown. The employment rolls had tumbled by 735,000 in October.
Broadly speaking, the November report was consistent with the past year, which has seen an average 195,000 new jobs per month.
The biggest employment gains came in professional and business services (35,000), transportation and warehousing (31,000) and health care, which added 28,000. Manufacturing contributed 27,000 new positions and retail was up 20,000.
Earnings notched higher by 4 percent to an average $24.15 an hour while the work week rose one-tenth to 34.5 hours.
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Of the previous 24 jobs reports, 12 have beaten estimates and 12 have missed.
The S&P 500 has been a seven-month winning streak for the day the jobs report is released. Each of those "Jobs Fridays" has seen the report top analyst estimates and has seen the stock market index gain an average of 0.78 percent, according to Bespoke Investment Group.
—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter