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Bernanke to face pressure on Fed's plan to hold interest rates near zero for 3 years
WASHINGTON (AP) ' Ben Bernanke is likely to face pressure this week over the Federal Reserve's plan to hold interest rates near zero until late 2014.
Lawmakers and some economists have begun to question whether keeping rates that low for that long will heighten the risk of inflation, especially if the economy continues to improve and companies keep hiring.
Bernanke is not expected to signal any changes when he delivers the Fed's semi-annual economic report this week, first to the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday and then to the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday.
Nor do economists expect the Fed to alter its plan after its next meeting, on March 13. But some believe the Fed may soften its commitment to the 2014 timeframe after its late-April meeting, if the economy continues to make solid strides.
"We believe we need to see another couple of months of large payroll gains around 250,000 alongside a lower unemployment" rate first, economists at Deutsche Bank said in a research note.
Others say it would take an unmistakable sign of strength for the Fed to back off the 2014 target this year.
The job market is looking a lot better. The unemployment rate has fallen for five straight months and employers have added an average of 200,000 net jobs per month from November through January. Many economists are predicting that trend carried over into February.
Consumer confidence rose this month to the highest point in a year. Stocks have been surging ' the Dow Jones industrial average on Wednesday closed above 13,000 for the first time since May 2008, four months before the financial crisis. Even the housing market is looking a little better.
Many economists believe Bernanke will take note of the recent improvements. But he's expected to caution that serious risks remain. He's likely to note the debt crisis in Europe. And he'll point out that gas prices have jumped in recent months.
"I don't expect Bernanke to say much beyond what the Fed has been saying which is a very conservative outlook that continues to show concern about the sustainability of the recovery," said Brian Bethune, an economics professor at Amherst College.
Few economists expect the Fed to announce another round of bond-buying at its next meeting. But some say Bernanke will leave that option on the table, in case the economy falters again.
The Fed has tripled the size of its balance sheet since the financial crisis hit in 2008 to a record $2.94 trillion. It has conducted two rounds of bond purchases, one starting in late 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, and a $600 billion program that was announced in November 2010 and concluded in June of last year.