* U.S. non-farm payrolls easily tops expectations
* China exports grow in February
* Futures up: Dow 116 pts, S&P 6.4 pts, Nasdaq 9.5 pts
By Chuck Mikolajczak
NEW YORK, March 8 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were poised for a higher open on Friday, with the S&P 500 on track to rise for a sixth straight session and the Dow set to scale fresh peaks after a much stronger than expected payrolls report.
Data showed hiring increased in February, with payrolls jumping by 236,000, easily beating expectations for a gain of 160,000 jobs. The unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest since December 2008.
“Great report - there just isn’t anything that I can pull out negative at all about this report,” said Darrell Cronk, regional chief investment officer for Wells Fargo Private Bank in New York.
“It is taking a little bit of this argument off the table that the Fed is doing all the heavy lifting in the economy, there is a trend building in the economic data that, while not off-the-charts-great, is definitely moving in the right direction.”
The data helped futures to add to earlier gains triggered by data from China. Exports in the world’s second-biggest economy soared 21.8 percent in February from a year ago, exceeding expectations and suggesting global demand may also be on the mend. Imports fell 15.2 percent to 13-month lows.
“With promising Chinese economic data, the market is enthusiastic and continuing its positive run, fueling additional optimism ahead of the employment data,” said Andre Bakhos, director of market analytics at Lek Securities in New York.
“There appears to be a high confidence level the payroll numbers will be better than consensus given the peek at the private payroll numbers earlier this week.”
The benchmark S&P index has advanced 1.7 percent in the week, its biggest weekly gain so far this year, on data showing an improving labor market picture and expectations the Federal Reserve will not end its economic stimulus program soon.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended Thursday at a record high for a third consecutive session and the S&P is about 2 percent away from an all-time intraday high as investors have kept any dips contained by seizing the opportunity to buy.
But investors were mindful of the possibility of a pullback after the steady gains this year, as the last correction for the benchmark S&P index was nearly a year ago - a 9.9 percent slide between April highs to the start of June.
S&P 500 futures rose 6.4 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 116 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures added 9.5 points.
Later in the session, the Commerce Department will release wholesale inventories for January at 10:00 a.m. (1500 GMT). Economists in a Reuters survey forecast inventories to rise 0.3 percent versus a drop of 0.1 percent in December.
The Federal Reserve said on Thursday the biggest U.S. banks had enough capital to withstand a severe economic downturn, with all but Ally Financial passing the annual health check of the financial sector.
McDonald’s Corp gained 1.8 percent to $98.80 in premarket trading after the fast-food hamburger chain said February sales at established restaurants fell just 1.5 percent, a little better than expected.
Pandora Media shares jumped 25.3 percent to $14.70 in premarket trading on stronger-than-expected quarterly results. The company also said CEO Joseph Kennedy is stepping down in a surprise announcement.
SkullCandy Inc shares tumbled 18.9 percent to $5.45 in premarket trading after the headphone maker reported higher-than-expected fourth-quarter revenue but said it expects to post a loss in the current quarter.