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Jobless rate falls to 6.5%

Unemployment across the nation declined in February to what was probably its lowest level since the recession of 1990-91 got under way. So did Florida's.

The national unemployment rate was 6.5 percent, according to the Labor Department's new system for measuring it, but it is likely that the figure would have been somewhere between a flat 6 percent and 6.2 percent had the old system still been in use. The questions in the now-discarded survey yielded too low an unemployment figure, especially for women.

The decline in the national unemployment rate, compared with January's 6.7 percent _ the January survey was also done with the new questionnaire _ surprised many analysts who had expected little improvement because of February's unusually cold and stormy weather in the Midwest and East.

The weather did apparently contribute to a decline in the average number of hours worked by non-supervisory employees, though it might also mean that employers were finally confident enough of the economic outlook to hire new workers instead of adding overtime, as they have been doing.

Reinforcing the upbeat news from the survey of households, on which the unemployment figure is based, were the figures from the Labor Department's separate compilation of payroll records of businesses and governments.

They showed an increase of 217,000 in the number of people at work, despite a decline of 22,000 jobs in the construction industry, which is always the hardest hit by bad weather.

Employment in manufacturing continued its slow rise, for the fourth straight month, with a modest increase of 12,000 jobs.

For Florida, the unemployment rate registered a large drop from January's 7.5 percent to 5.7 percent.

Because the sample of Florida households is so much smaller than the national sample, a change of about 0.9 percentage points is needed to assure that the reported change is real and not a fluke resulting from the sample.

The decline from January to February clearly met that test, although it does not assure that the size of the indicated change is exactly right.

For Florida, as for the nation, the new questionnaire means that comparisons with earlier periods are chancy. But it appeared likely that unemployment in the state was lower than it had been since the recession first took hold of Florida's economy.

Some economists saw less than a robust advance in the February numbers.

Among them was Robert G. Dederick of Chicago-based Northern Trust Co. who noted that the average monthly increase in the number of jobs on business and government payrolls in January and February combined, at 145,000, was significantly below the monthly average of 180,000 in the last quarter of last year.

The financial markets apparently disagreed. Stock prices rose. Bond prices declined, which means that interest rates rose, a movement that is interpreted as a sign the bond market felt the jobs report was so strong that inflation may shortly be a threat.

There was no sign of that in a separate Labor Department report on average hourly wages, which showed almost no increase.

Still another government statistic, the Commerce Department's compilation of a dozen different statistics known as the Index of Leading Economic Indicators, rose 0.3 percent in January. It was the sixth straight month of rise in the index. _ Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.