TREASURIES-Prices gain as data support U.S. economy worries

Thu May 16, 2013 10:55am EDT

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By Luciana Lopez

NEW YORK, May 16 (Reuters) - U.S. Treasuries prices rose on Thursday after data raised questions about the strength of the U.S. economy, including the struggling labor market, fueling speculation the Federal Reserve will keep its easy money spigot open for now.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits jumped by 32,000 to a seasonally adjusted 360,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday - the biggest jump since November.

Adding to the picture of weakness, factory activity in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region contracted in May as new orders fell to the lowest level in almost a year.

The data came a day after another report showed activity in New York state's manufacturing sector unexpectedly contracted in May, as well.

"Based on the incoming information today, I think the Fed remains quite accommodative," said Tanweer Akram, senior economist with ING U.S. Investment Management in Atlanta, Georgia.

"Fed officials may have discussed exit strategies, but that's not an immediate exit plan."

Data also showed inflation is well contained, with U.S. consumer prices slumping in April by the most in over four years.

The benchmark 10-year note gained 18/32 in price to yield 1.877 percent, compared with 1.94 percent late on Wednesday.

The 30-year bond traded 1-11/32 higher to yield 3.090 percent compared with 3.1576 percent late on Wednesday.

Investors are now trying to figure out when the U.S. Federal Reserve could slow or even stop its easing program as the economy recovers.

The Fed is buying $85 billion per month in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities in a bid to prop up the economy and boost employment.

But recent data have painted a mixed picture, with encouraging jobs figures interspersed with data showing a still-struggling manufacturing sector.

Still, with inflation pressures absent, some analysts say the Fed has little cause to worry that its policies will boost consumer prices beyond the central bank's target of 2 percent growth.

"We should see more disinflation. We should see lower CPI readings," said Craig Dismuke, chief economic strategist at Vining Sparks in Memphis, Tennessee.

"I think the Fed has to pay attention on this. This muddles the argument on asset purchases," he added.

The containment of price pressures could give monetary policymakers scope to focus on the employment side of their dual mandate. With the unemployment rate still a full percentage point above the 6.5 percent the Fed wants to see, the labor market could remain a source of concern.

"We don't doubt that conditions will strengthen later in the year, but if it is a summer swoon, don't look for the Fed to talk tapering QE any time soon," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York.

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