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Fed says economy ended year strong

The U.S. economy ended last year on an encouraging note, with all parts of the country showing improvements. Factories produced more, shoppers spent more and companies hired more -- pointing to a stronger economy in 2011.

That's the picture that emerged from the Federal Reserve's survey of economic conditions released Wednesday.

Still, risks loom. Declining home prices and millions of foreclosures are depressing housing markets around the country, the survey said.

Companies are also paying more for materials including oil, food products, steel, textiles and chemicals, the survey noted. However, competitive pressures prevented them from passing those increased costs on to customers in the form of higher prices.

And even though employers are slowly hiring more, workers lack bargaining power to win bigger paychecks because of high unemployment, which is now at 9.4 percent.

Price increases remain tame. The Fed will monitor inflation as it reviews its $600 billion Treasury bond-buying program, which is intended to boost the economy by lowering interest rates, encouraging spending and lifting stock prices.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said he is optimistic that the economy will strengthen this year. But he warned last week that it will take up to five years for unemployment to drop to a historically normal level of around 6 percent.

The bond-buying program will come under scrutiny at the Fed's first meeting of 2011 on Jan. 25-26. Four regional Fed presidents become voting members of the Fed's policymaking group at that meeting. Two of them -- Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia -- have voiced concerns that the bond-buying program could spur inflation.

The Fed survey also said:

*Hiring was firming, and businesses in most regions planned to increase hiring at the same pace or faster this year.

*Retailers across all regions experienced better-than-expected sales after a strong holiday shopping season.

*Factories across the country boosted production, with demand growing for cars and high-tech equipment.

*Businesses said they no longer fear there will be a double-dip recession. Many had expressed concerns of a second downturn when surveyed over the summer.

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