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Fed likely to keep backing low-rate policies

– The U.S. economy is strengthening on the fuel of more job growth, rising home prices and solid retail sales. Just don’t expect the Federal Reserve to let up in its drive to keep stimulating the economy with record-low interest rates.

Not yet, anyway.

That’s the view of economists as Fed policymakers hold a two-day meeting that began Tuesday. Today, the Fed will issue a policy statement and update its economic forecasts, and Chairman Ben Bernanke will hold a news conference.

All of which will likely reinforce Bernanke’s stated view that the job market, in particular, has a long way to go to full health and still needs the Fed’s extraordinary support.

The unemployment rate, at 7.7 percent, remains well above the 5 percent to 6 percent range associated with a healthy economy. The Fed has said it plans to keep short-term rates at record lows at least until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent, as long as the inflation outlook remains mild. And it foresees unemployment staying above 6.5 percent until at least the end of 2015.

Today, economists think Bernanke will acknowledge the economy’s gains. But most foresee no pullback in the strategy of keeping short-term rates at record lows and of buying $85 billion a month in Treasurys and mortgage bonds to keep long-term loan rates down.

“They will keep the pedal to the metal at this week’s meeting,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “Even though the economy has improved, it has not improved enough to switch course. We still don’t have unemployment low enough.”

The economy slowed to an annual growth rate of just 0.1 percent in the October-December quarter, a near-stall that was due mainly to temporary factors that have largely faded. Economists think growth has rebounded in the January-March quarter to an annual rate around 2 percent or more. The most recent data support that view.

Americans spent more at retailers in February despite higher Social Security taxes that shrank most workers’ paychecks. Manufacturing gained solidly in February. And employers have gone on a four-month hiring spree, adding an average of 205,000 jobs a month. In February, the unemployment rate, though still high, reached its lowest point in more than four years.

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