By Pedro da Costa
ATLANTA (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve cannot rule out additional monetary easing even if steady growth and "acceptable" inflation make it harder to justify fresh action, a top Fed official said on Monday.
Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed, said he expects the U.S. economy to grow between 2.5 percent and 3 percent this year, but said a risk remains from consumers' still fragile financial position and Europe's unresolved banking problems.
Given that backdrop, Lockhart suggested he had not yet made up his mind about the potential need for another round of monetary stimulus, which would most likely take the form of additional bond purchases by the Fed. Still, he made clear the bar remains high, particularly with growth having picked up in the fourth quarter.
"Steady even if unspectacular growth accompanied by inflation in the neighborhood of 2 percent justifies some reluctance to change, in either direction, the accommodative policy" of the Fed, Lockhart said at a Rotary Club meeting here. "At the same time, I think slow progress toward full employment justifies continuing consideration of whether more can and should be done."
Lockhart suggested that a move announced by the Fed last week to increase transparency in communications could give some boost to economic growth. The Fed said it would begin publishing individual policymakers' forecasts for the future path of interest rates.
"Good communication can be a form of stimulus," said Lockhart, who rotated into a voting seat on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee this year. "It can help people plan, make decisions, gain the confidence that the economy needs."
Asked if the Fed would also provide guidance on expectations for the size of the balance sheet given the central bank's reliance on bond purchases to deliver stimulus, Lockhart said the issue had been discussed but he was not aware of any immediate plans to do so.
His comments come as the U.S. economy has been showing signs of improvement, though worries remain over the possibility that Europe's banking crisis could spill over.
The U.S. jobless rate has fallen significantly in recent months, dipping to 8.5 percent in December after being stuck close to 9 percent for most of the year.
Lockhart said he expects continued progress on the employment front, but cautioned that it will be slow. One key reason is that consumers remain on shaky footing, leaving the prospect that spending will falter at some point unless incomes start to rise.
"Apparent stronger consumption at year-end was associated with falling savings rates, compensating for stagnating income growth," Lockhart said. "I question whether this consumer spending momentum will be sustained without a pickup in income growth."
(Reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Leslie Adler)