The brighter news has prompted speculation that the Fed might be preparing to dial back its easy-money policies. Such thinking has been fed by concerns voiced by a few Fed regional bank presidents about the low-rate policies.
These include fears that the Fed has pumped so much money into the economy that it could eventually ignite inflation, fuel speculative asset bubbles or destabilize markets once the Fed has to start raising rates or unloading its record $3 trillion investment portfolio.
Minutes of the December and January policy meetings showed that some officials suggested that the Fed might need to at least scale back its $85 billion-a-month in bond purchases. Still, the low-rate policies received solid backing in 11-1 votes. And economists see no sign that this support is eroding.
When he gave the Fed's twice-a-year economic report to Congress in February, Bernanke defended the low-interest rate programs. And while he acknowledged the fears of critics, he downplayed them. He struck the same note in a speech to a conference in San Francisco. There, Bernanke said it would be "quite costly" to the U.S. economy if the Fed pulled back too soon.
At their last meeting Jan. 28-29, Fed officials reaffirmed their decision in December to keep short-term rates at super-lows at least as long as unemployment stays above 6.5 percent. The Fed's benchmark rate for overnight bank lending has remained at a record low near zero since December 2008. The Fed also repeated its plan to keep buying bonds to lower long-term rates until the job market had improved "substantially."
One reason for the Fed's reluctance to reduce its stimulus is the history of the past three years. In each of the three, economic prospects looked promising as the year began. Yet in each case, the economy stumbled.
In 2010, U.S. growth was hurt by turmoil from Europe's debt crisis. In 2011, a spike in gas prices and supply disruptions caused by Japan's earthquake and tsunami dampened growth. And in 2012, higher gas prices cut into consumer spending.