Federal Reserve Committee Begins Meeting

U.S. Federal Reserve policy-makers began a meeting on Monday that economists expect will yield a 15th straight interest-rate hike and maybe a hint that a 21-month run of credit-tightening is almost over.

The central bank's rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee began its two-day meeting at 3 p.m., as scheduled, a Fed official said.

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The meeting is the first to be led by new Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, a former Princeton University economist who was chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a Fed governor before assuming leadership at the Fed on February 1.

Bernanke steps into the role vacated by Alan Greenspan, who built a towering reputation over 18 years at the head of the central bank, which included 149 policy meetings.

Two new Fed governors are also on board, Kevin Warsh and Randall Kroszner. Outgoing Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank President Anthony Santomero and departing Fed Vice Chairman Roger Ferguson will miss the meeting.

A decision on interest rates is expected on Tuesday at around 2:15 p.m., along with a statement outlining the central bank's analysis of economic conditions and, possibly, some hints on the interest-rate path.

The Fed is widely expected to bump up overnight borrowing costs by a quarter-percentage point to 4.75 percent.

Policy-makers may also revise the accompanying statement to signal a halt in rate hikes may be near, some economists say.

Interest-rate futures markets see a good chance of rates hitting 5 percent at the Fed's subsequent meeting in May, with a near certainty they will be at that level by mid-year.

U.S. economic growth is on track for a vigorous performance in the first quarter of the year, but signs of a slowing housing market, including softer-than-expected new-home sales in February, could point to weakness in the second half.

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