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Fed says economy needs $600B bond-purchase program

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that the economy isn’t growing fast enough to lower unemployment and must press ahead with its $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase program.

Ending its first meeting of the year, the Fed made no changes to the program. The decision was unanimous. It came from a new lineup of voting members that includes two officials who have criticized the bond purchases. They have said the purchases could eventually ignite inflation or speculative buying in assets like stocks.

The bond-buying program is intended to lower rates on loans and boost stock prices, spurring more spending and invigorating the economy. Chairman Ben Bernanke faces the challenge of trying to boost hiring and growth without creating new economic threats.

The tax-cut package that took effect this month is easing pressure on the Fed to stimulate growth through its bond purchases. The measure renewed income-tax cuts and cut workers’ Social Security taxes, boosting their take-home pay.

The Fed’s assessment of the economy was nearly identical to its last meeting in December. Fed policymakers seemed to downplay recent improvements in the economy including stronger spending by consumers and more production at factories.

Fed policymakers observed that the “economic recovery is continuing, though at a rate that has been insufficient to bring about a significant improvement in labor market conditions,” the Fed said.