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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada unexpectedly failed to create any new jobs in February, continuing a trend of stalled employment despite signs of a healthy domestic economy and a comeback by the U.S. job market.
The net job losses in February totaled 2,800, dragged down by retail and wholesale trade, transportation and other services, Statistics Canada said on Friday.
The agency also reported a drop in exports in January, after two months of gains, biting into the country's trade surplus.
The reports mean less pressure on the Bank of Canada to raise its benchmark interest rate soon, even though the bank issued a more upbeat economic outlook on Thursday and is worried that ultra-low borrowing costs are fueling record high household debt.
Markets had expected 14,500 jobs to be created in the month.
The unemployment rate nonetheless dropped to 7.4 percent from 7.6 percent in January, largely because 38,000 people dropped out of the workforce, the most since January 2009.
"Clearly another month of disappointing labor market numbers," said Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada.
"It's providing an indication that, at the moment, the labor markets don't seem to be sharing the strengthening that we're seeing in other indicators," he said.
Canada recovered all the jobs lost during the recession by early 2011 and the economy expanded at a solid clip in the second half of the year. However, employment growth has slowed to its weakest level since 2009 and for the first time since the global financial crisis lags behind the United States, which saw solid job growth in February for a third straight month.
Canada's jobless rate is still over 1 percentage point lower than that of the United States.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was eager to remind Canadians that they are still ahead of the Americans on job recovery - the unemployment rate is over a percentage point lower - and to point out what he called a trend to more full-time jobs being created rather than lower quality part-time ones.
The U.S. is "finally beginning to catch up to Canada," he said. "I think that with the growth now, finally, of jobs in the United States, I think this gives us some reason for optimism going forward."
Harper said the March 29 federal budget would contain "a lot of measures" to create jobs.
In addition to being full-time, the February job gains were private sector positions, and hiring in the financial services, education and construction industries partially offset weakness elsewhere.
The losses were heaviest in the wholesale and retail sectors, transportation and warehousing, healthcare and social assistance and public administration.
Wages rose 2.1 percent in the year to February, below the inflation rate, suggesting the domestic strength that has driven economic growth in the face of external weakness may soften.
The central bank held its benchmark interest rate at a very low 1 percent for the 18th month. While a rate increase may be back on its radar because of optimism about the U.S. economy and the European debt crisis, the latest data reinforces market expectations that a move is not imminent.
"This isn't going to make a huge impact, but it will likely reinforce the point that the domestic economy is not its old self and there is no particular rush for the Bank of Canada to suddenly shift to a tighter stance," said Doug Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets.
The Canadian dollar weakened after the data to C$0.9942 versus the U.S. dollar, or $1.0058, down from C$0.9927 immediately earlier. But it rebounded to a session high of C$0.9880 after the U.S. data.
Markets are pricing in a much smaller possibility of a rate cut in early 2012 than they had previously, and see a 90.8 percent chance the Bank of Canada will hold rates steady in April.
The third consecutive trade surplus in January was above expectations at C$2.10 billion ($2.12 billion) but down from C$2.86 billion in December.
Exports fell 2.3 percent but volumes were solid, leaving most economists predicting a gradually improving trade profile as the year progresses
"This is a breather after two very strong months ... We've still got a solid export sector here," said Peter Hall, chief economist at Export Development Canada, a federal agency.
Canada's trade surplus with the United States grew to C$6.07 billion from C$5.90 billion in December, the highest level since October 2008.
Labor productivity increased by 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 as output continued to grow.
For 2011 as a whole, business productivity rose by 0.8 percent after the 1.5 percent year-on-year increase seen in 2010. For the first time since 2006 Canadian productivity grew faster than that of the United States, which was up by just 0.2 percent in 2011.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren, Claire Sibonney, Euan Rocha, Jon Cook and Ora Morison; editing by Rob Wilson