Fed seen maintaining bond-buying, but divisions remain

Some policymakers advocate adopting set levels of certain economic variables that would signal when the central bank thinks the time is ripe to stop the purchases, much like the "thresholds" it has adopted to help guide the market's understanding of when interest rates are finally likely to rise.

An unexpected halt in the buying, which accounts for a considerable part of the demand for U.S. Treasury debt, could send long-term borrowing costs shooting up and damage the recovery.

The president of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, Eric Rosengren, has led the charge for bond-buying thresholds, arguing the central bank should continue the purchases until unemployment falls under 7.25 percent.

Other officials think differently, and it may take months to build a consensus -- if one can even be built.

Since September, when it launched QE3, the Fed has said it would buy bonds until it saw a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market -- a mark many analysts think won't be reached this year.

More than half of 41 economists polled by Reuters earlier this month expect purchases to continue into 2014.

"They have to see a substantial improvement in the labor market, and they don't forecast one this year," said Stephen Oliner, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

But minutes of the Fed's December meeting, released early this month, showed a few policymakers thought the program should be halted by the mid-2013, surprising financial markets.

As the first meeting of the year, four voting seats on the policy panel will change hands.

The new voters are Esther George, the Kansas City Fed president; Boston's Rosengren; James Bullard, the St. Louis Fed president; and Chicago Fed President Charles Evans.

George is viewed as a clear hawk and the most likely to dissent against maintaining the bond purchases, while Evans and Rosengren are expected to vote in favor. Bullard's recent comments have been hawkish, but he has not sounded sufficiently uncomfortable with current policy to dissent at this stage.

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