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Ben Bernanke likely to be pressed on economy

Questions arise on further Fed efforts, actions

WASHINGTON — When Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke visits Capitol Hill on Thursday, he’ll be pressed on a question that’s raised fears and divided economists inside and outside the Fed: What’s going on with the economy?

In its most recent economic forecasts in late April, the Fed upgraded its outlook for 2012. It predicted more growth and lower unemployment than it had three months earlier. Since then, job growth has slumped. Stock prices have dropped. Europe’s debt crisis has deepened.

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Now, members of the Joint Economic Committee will want to know whether Bernanke and the Fed have turned gloomier — and, if so, whether they’re likely to act further to aid the economy.

The Fed has made two rounds of bond purchases to try to lower long-term interest rates and encourage borrowing and spending. After those purchases ended, the Fed began a program dubbed Operation Twist: It sells shorter-term securities and buys longer-term bonds to keep their rates down. Operation Twist is set to end at the end of this month.

Bernanke has said that more bond purchases, or other steps by the Fed, are still an option if the economy weakens. But many analysts don’t expect further moves at the Fed’s next policy meeting June 19-20. They note long-term rates have already touched record lows. And few think further Fed action would lower them much more.

Many economists think Bernanke will discuss the possibility of further Fed efforts at a news conference after the June meeting but won’t announce anything. Some say he would help shore up confidence by reiterating that more action remains an option should the economy weaken.

‘‘Just the fact that Bernanke is talking about more Fed bond buying would be important,’’ said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University. ‘‘What we need is a psychological lift.’’

A bleaker view of the economy has taken hold in recent weeks, especially as hiring has weakened. US employers added just 69,000 jobs in May, the fewest in a year. Since averaging a robust 252,000 a month from December through February, job growth has slowed to a lackluster 96,000 a month.

And the US economy grew at a tepid annual rate of 1.9 percent in the first three months of 2012.

Fears are also growing that a collapse of Europe’s euro currency union could trigger a panic and perhaps cause a global recession.

On Thursday lawmakers will likely want to know how concerned Bernanke and other Fed officials are.

Do they think the US hiring slump is partly a temporary setback because a warm winter caused some hiring to occur earlier in the year than usual?

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