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updated 1/24/2011 3:49:02 PM ET 2011-01-24T20:49:02

Few expect any major shifts when the Federal Reserve's policymaking panel meets this week, even though two of its new voting members have been skeptics of the Fed's $600 billion Treasury bond purchase plan.

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That could all change by spring, when the Fed must decide whether to extend its bond purchases. Any push to renew the program beyond its scheduled June 30 end date would likely face stiffer resistance within the Fed.

The Treasury bond purchases are intended to aid the U.S. economy by lowering interest rates, encouraging spending and raising stock prices. But some, like the two new Fed voting members, warn that the bond purchases could eventually ignite inflation by keeping rates too low for too long.

The Fed's first meeting of the year will occur Tuesday and Wednesday, after which it will issue a policy statement. Among four regional Fed bank presidents who will rotate onto the policymaking group are two who have spoken out against the Treasury bond plan: Charles Plosser of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and Richard Fisher of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Plosser and Fisher would likely oppose any effort to extend the program. They may even pressure Chairman Ben Bernanke to scale back the program before June.

The Fed's mid-March or late-April meetings will likely be pivotal. That's when the Fed will probably signal its decision about the bond-buying program. The bond purchases, besides inciting concerns from some Fed officials, have drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers and from China, Brazil, Germany and other key trading partners.

When they were previously voting members, during the 2008 financial crisis, Fisher and Plosser opposed Bernanke's deep interest rate cuts. Fisher dissented at five of the Fed's 10 meetings that year, Plosser at two.

Both could also dissent from the Fed's likely decisions this year to continue holding its key interest rate at a record low near zero. Most economists don't think the Fed will start boosting rates until next year. But Fisher and Plosser may try to prod the Fed to raise rates sooner.

At this week's meeting, the Fed is all but certain to maintain the pace of its bond-buying program, and hold interest rates at ultra-low levels. While Bernanke has said the economy is strengthening, he and other officials have also cited economic threats that they say justify continued bond purchases.

More foreclosed homes could depress home prices, for example. State and local governments around the country are facing budget crises and may further cut spending and staff levels. Europe's debt problems could roil Wall Street, dragging down stock prices.

Combined, those possibilities could cause Americans to spend more cautiously, slowing the economy.

"The Fed is going to proceed cautiously," said Alice Rivlin, who served as the Fed's No. 2 official in the late 1990s. "They are looking for a stronger recovery, but they can't predict exactly how it will play out."

Fisher and Plosser probably won't dissent at this week's meeting. But they're likely to break from Bernanke in the spring. The economy is expected to be growing faster by then, and inflation could be running a bit higher. Still, unemployment, now at 9.4 percent, is expected to remain elevated.

Fisher and Plosser are considered inflation "hawks" — more concerned about the threat of high inflation than about the need to stimulate the economy. They're less inclined to back low interest rates and other steps that might ease high unemployment if the risk of fanning inflation seems too high.

Bernanke pushed for the bond-buying program, announced Nov. 3, because the economy had been growing too slowly to reduce unemployment. He said he also worried that the sluggish economy could lead to deflation — a dangerous drop in prices, wages and values of homes and stocks.

The question is what happens to the Fed's bond-buying program as spring approaches.

Story: What is the Federal Open Market Committee?

"I think by the March or April meeting the Fed will want to give a hint about what to do with the program," said Randy Kroszner, a former Fed governor who served with Bernanke.

Even with the addition of Plosser and Fisher, Bernanke commands enough support on the 11-member Federal Open Market Committee to advance his economic policies. (The two other new voting members this year — Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago — have backed the bond-buying plan.)

But Plosser and Fisher could complicate the message Bernanke's Fed sends to the public and Wall Street investors. That's because even if Bernanke has enough votes to endorse his approach, he would want to avoid the appearance of too much dissension within the Fed.

Story: Expect a subdued Fed appraisal of the economy

As a result, the chairman might have to compromise on the wording of the statements the Fed issues after its meetings to bring Fisher and Plosser on board, said Vincent Reinhart, who formerly served as an economist for the Fed committee.

Having Fed too many officials speak out publicly against Fed policies, as Fisher, Plosser and others have done, could hurt Bernanke's ability to convey a clear and unified policy stance.

"What's really affected here is the Fed's communications," Reinhart said. "It will complicate Bernanke's job of getting his message out clearly."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: What is the the FOMC?

  • Image: Fed Chair Ben Bernanke
    Getty Images

    The Federal Reserve's chief policymaking group has vast power over the finances of ordinary people, businesses and investors. The consequences of its interest-rate decisions range wide: from people's ability to get affordable loans to the price of cereal at the grocery store or gasoline at the corner station.

    Here's a look at the policymaking group, called the Federal Open Market Committee.

  • What is the FOMC's primary role?

    Image: Employment Development Department office in San Jose, Calif.
    AP

    Its mission is to keep the economy, inflation and employment on a healthy track. When the economy weakens, Fed policymakers cut rates or keep them low. The idea is to cause people and businesses to borrow and spend more, which sustains the economy. But when the economy grows so fast that inflation becomes a threat, Fed policymakers will raise rates or keep them high. That makes it costlier for people to borrow. Spending and other economic activity will slow. Companies find it harder to raise prices. Inflation pressures ease.

  • How does the FOMC move interest rates?

    Image: TV shows rates unchanged
    AP

    Its policymakers decide whether to buy securities. Doing so expands the flow of money into the financial system and lowers the Fed's key interest rate. Conversely, the policymakers could decide to sell securities. That would drain money from the system and tighten credit by raising rates. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is responsible for conducting these operations.

  • Who's on the committee?

    Image: Federal Reserve Board Governor Raskin
    Reuters

    It's composed of:

    • The Fed's Board of Governors in Washington, which now totals five members but at full strength has seven members.
    • The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
    • Four of the remaining 11 presidents of the Fed's regional banks. They serve one-year terms on a rotating basis.

    Here is Tuesday's roster of voting members: Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen, and Fed Governors Elizabeth Duke, Daniel Tarullo and Sarah Bloom Raskin (pictured), all based in Washington; William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago; Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia; Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; and Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

    (President Barack Obama has nominated Peter Diamond to be a Fed governor, but the Senate hasn't confirmed him. Diamond, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2010. )

  • How often does the FOMC meet?

    Image: The Federal Reserve building
    Reuters

    It regularly meets eight times a year in person at the Fed's headquarters in Washington. During the financial crisis, the FOMC also held emergency meetings, mostly by video conference. This year, half the meetings were two-day sessions, the rest one-day. All the regularly scheduled meetings last year took two days. That was because the Fed needed time to devise unconventional programs to fight the financial crisis. Traditionally, one-day meetings are more common. Each one-day meeting runs roughly five hours. Two-day meetings run about eight hours spread over the two days.

  • Why are the FOMC's rate decisions issued around 2:15 p.m.?

    Image: Ben Bernanke on TV at NYSE
    AP

    Having a consistent time helps investors digest and react to the Fed's policy decisions. Issuing decisions when the markets are open gives Fed policymakers instant feedback from investors.

  • Why are some of the FOMC's rate decisions issued around 12:30 p.m.?

    Image: CNBC

    For the first time in the Fed's history, the chairman is conducting a series of regularly scheduled news conferences to discuss the Fed's forecast. Bernanke's first was held Wednesday. They will be held four times a year, after the Fed concludes its two-day meetings to update its economic forecasts on growth, employment and inflation. So, after those meetings, the FOMC's decisions are released earlier, around 12:30 p.m. Bernanke will then holds a news conference at 2:15 p.m. It's something that Bernanke's counterparts in Europe and Japan have done for years. The Fed is hoping the news conferences will improve its communications with Wall Street investors and the American public.

  • How are the FOMC's rate decisions approved?

    Image: Gavel
    Getty Images stock

    By a majority of the voting members, who now total nine. (At full strength, there would be 12.) That said, a close decision could spell trouble for the Fed chairman. It would suggest he can't win over policymakers to his side and could leave him weakened. Most votes are overwhelming, however, indicating that Fed chiefs are typically able to build consensus.

  • How are Fed officials selected?

    Image: President Barack Obama
    Reuters

    The president nominates the Fed chairman and his colleagues on the board of governors in Washington. They must be confirmed by the Senate. The presidents of the 12 regional Fed banks are appointed by each bank's board of directors, with approval from the Fed's board. A new law revamping financial regulation, however, bars bankers who sit on the regional boards from voting. Other local business people serving on the boards still retain their vote. This change was made to address concerns about potential conflicts of interest — having officials whose companies are overseen by the Fed in Washington picking the regional presidents.

  • How and why was the Fed created?

    Image: $100 bills
    Reuters

    Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. The legislation was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on Dec. 23, 1913. The Fed began operating in 1914. It was created in response to a series of bank panics that plagued the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those panics led to bank failures and business bankruptcies that roiled the economy.

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