TREASURIES-Prices steady to higher ahead of Bernanke testimony
* Bernanke testimony to be parsed for asset-purchase clues * ECB loan payback news offsets rise in German sentiment * Benchmark U.S. yields remain locked in tight 13-bps range By Chris Reese NEW YORK, Feb 22 (Reuters) - U.S. Treasuries were trading steady to slightly higher in price on Friday, in the absence of key U.S. economic data, as investors looked ahead to testimony next week from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Treasuries began the day trading lower in price, with traders citing a small increase in selling pressure after the release of the German Ifo sentiment survey, which beat forecasts and offset some pessimism about euro zone growth prospects triggered by downbeat data earlier in the week. Losses were tempered by news that banks in Europe will repay less than half the expected amount of crisis loans they took from the European Central Bank a year ago, which suggested much of the euro zone financial system was still dependent on cheap ECB funds. Treasury debt prices were also supported by worries over the economic impact of automatic U.S. government spending cuts set to begin March 1. Few analysts expect Democrats and Republicans to reach agreement on averting the cuts ahead of the deadline. Investors were also reluctant to part with lower-risk assets like Treasuries heading into the Italian national elections on Sunday and Monday as the country struggles in a deep recession. In the absence of U.S. economic data on Friday, investors were looking ahead to testimony from Fed Chairman Bernanke on Tuesday for signs of whether or when the central bank will wind down its economy-boosting stimulus program of asset purchases. Under the plan, it is currently buying $85 billion per month of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. The latest minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee, released this week, showed policymakers had discussed slowing or stopping Fed bond purchases aimed at reducing unemployment. "The next big event for the marketplace will be Bernanke's testimony next Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. EST (1500 GMT). We look for that testimony to be a bit dovish in nature, reinforcing his view that quantitative easing will continue for the foreseeable future," said Tom di Galoma, managing director at Navigate Advisors LLC in Stamford, Connecticut. As part of its stimulus program, the Fed on Friday bought $1.45 billion of Treasuries maturing February 2037 through August 2042. While speculation over whether the Fed will wind up its purchase program this year has bounced Treasuries around this week, benchmark yields remain locked in a 13 basis point range of 1.93 percent to 2.06 percent that has held for nearly a month. On Friday, 10-year notes were trading 3/32 higher in price to yield 1.96 percent, down slightly from 1.97 percent late Thursday. "This begins the 19th session in a row where tens have traded within 5.5 basis points of 2 percent, which maybe shouldn't be all too surprising given the rate-repressed environment, even after Fed Minutes and deluge of data from the past couple of days," wrote RBS' Gabriel Mann, William O'Donnell and John Briggs.