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Bullard says Fed could pause QE this year

President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis James Bullard poses during an interview at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis James Bullard poses during an interview at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve will be in a position to think about halting its large-scale asset purchases this year if the U.S. economy improves, a top central bank official said on Friday, fingering a 7.1-percent unemployment rate as a possible goal.

"If the economy performs well in 2013, the Committee will be in a position to think about going on pause" with the asset buys, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said on CNBC television. "If it doesn't do very well then the balance sheet policy will probably continue into 2014."

Fed policymakers are increasingly concerned about the impact their purchase of $85-billion in longer-term bonds and mortgage securities are having on financial markets.

Minutes from their December policy meeting showed that "several" top officials expected to slow or stop the so-called quantitative easing program, dubbed QE3, "well before" the end of the year - news that surprised some on Wall Street and prompted a drop in stocks and bonds, and a rise in the dollar.

Bullard, a voter this year on Fed policy who is toward the hawkish end of the spectrum of Fed policymakers, is the first top central bank official to speak publicly since the minutes were unveiled on Thursday.

Bullard said he expects unemployment to "continue to tick down through 2013," adding the Fed could ramp down the asset purchases if the jobless rate drops to 7.1 percent.

"That would be probably substantial improvement and the committee could think about removing accommodation on the balance sheet side of the policy at that point," he said.

U.S. unemployment was 7.8 percent last month.

With the Fed's key interest rate having remained near zero since late 2008 to encourage economic recovery from the Great Recession, the bond purchases are meant to lower longer-term rates and to encourage investment and hiring in the broader economy.

A few more Fed policymakers are due to speak later on Friday.

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Additional reporting by Herb Lash; Editing by Vicki Allen)