Fed says economic recovery on firmer footing

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve expressed more confidence in the U.S. economy even as Japan's nuclear crisis raised worries around the globe.

The Fed said the economic recovery is on "firmer footing" and the jobs market is "improving gradually," in a statement released after its meeting Tuesday.

That's a more upbeat tone from its previous meeting on Jan. 26. After that meeting, Fed policymakers said the rate of economic activity was "insufficient" to bring about "significant improvement" in the job market.

The Fed on Tuesday, in a unanimous decision, said it was maintaining the pace of its $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase program to help the economy grow more strongly and to lower unemployment, which now stands at 8.9 percent.

The Fed made no mention of Japan's crisis, which caused stocks to plunge earlier in the day. But the Fed's stimulative policy would help the U.S. economy withstand widening economic risks from home and abroad.

A more positive outlook from the Fed helped Wall Street recover some of its losses from earlier in the day. The Dow Jones industrial average was down only 132 points in late-afternoon trading after falling by as much as 297 points in morning trading.

The bond-purchase program, which is slated to end in June, is intended to lower loan rates and boost stock prices. Those forces should spur Americans to spend more and companies to hire more.

The Fed also downplayed inflation risks. It said higher prices for energy and other commodities are increasing inflation, but predicted that the pickup in prices will be "transitory." That's consistent with the assessment Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke gave to Congress earlier this month.

Despite the Fed's more optimistic outlook, the list of potential risks to the economy has grown since the Fed's last meeting.

Japan is the world's third-largest economy, so the earthquake and ensuing nuclear crisis there are certain to affect the global economy.

Oil price have spiked since January, rising as investors worry that unrest in the Middle East and Africa could hurt global supply. Oil prices have dipped in recent days and are now hovering around $97 a barrel. Still, gasoline prices have stayed high and now average $3.57 a gallon nationwide.

Investors also are concerned that Europe's debt crisis could linger.

For the United States, the threats at home and abroad have the potential to slow the U.S. economy, or stoke inflation. Or both.