WASHINGTON -- Hiring is soft. Pay is barely up. Consumers are cautious. Economic growth has yet to pick up.
And yet on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve is expected to take its first step toward reducing the extraordinary stimulus it's supplied to help the U.S. economy rebound from its deepest crisis since the Great Depression.
If it does, the Fed will likely spark a debate: Has the economy strengthened enough to withstand the pullback?
The answer might not be clear for months.
The Fed is meeting this week at a time of deepening uncertainty about who will succeed chairman Ben Bernanke when his term ends in January. On Sunday, Lawrence Summers, who was considered the leading candidate, withdrew from consideration.
Summers' withdrawal followed growing resistance from critics. His exit could open the door for his chief rival, Janet Yellen, the Fed's vice chair. If chosen by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate, Yellen would become the first woman to lead the Fed.
For months, the Fed has said it will slow its $85 billion-a-month in Treasury and mortgage bond purchases once the outlook for the job market has improved substantially. Those purchases have been designed to keep long-term loan rates low to get people to borrow and spend and invest in the stock market.
Super-low rates are credited with helping fuel a housing comeback, support economic growth, drive stocks to record highs and restore the wealth of many Americans.
Gas prices should decline: Now that the summer travel season has come to an end, AAA Mid-Atlantic says gasoline prices should start to decline due to weaker demand. In its weekly report on gas prices Sunday, AAA says the national average price for a gallon of unleaded was $3.52, down from $3.57 a week ago. The auto club waned that escalating violence in the Middle East, hurricanes or other disruptions could send prices back up.
Monitors kids' social media: A Southern California school district is trying to stop cyberbullying by watching what students post on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday (http://lat.ms/1dgGpBq ) that Glendale Unified School District hired the company Geo Listening last year to track postings by about 14,000 middle and high school students. The Glendale district is paying $40,500 and in exchange, the company's computers scour public posts by students and alerts school administrators when they find something they think should spur an intervention. So far, no students have been disciplined, but some say the program infringes on their privacy.
Firm returns health care grant: A company that has for decades helped people enroll in Medicaid says it won't be able to sign up people for insurance under the new Affordable Care Act because there is too much scrutiny over a so-called navigator program. According to an email obtained by The Associated Press, Cardon Outreach's chief legal officer Charles Kable told the federal government it was returning more than $800,000 in federal grant money. The funds were supposed to be used to hire people in four states help explain the intricacies of health insurance to millions of people who aren't covered. While the email didn't go into specifics, some have said those opposed to the health care law are making it difficult for some of the navigator programs to get off the ground.
Seeks first male spokesman: This year if you call Butterball's Turkey Talk Line for some turkey advice, you might get a male voice on the line. For the first time, Butterball enlisting the help of men as well as women for its Turkey Talk cooking-advice line during the holidays. And the turkey seller is seeking the first male talk-line spokesman this year as well. The talk line, which is 32 years old this year, has long offered advice to anyone overwhelmed by making the perfect turkey for Turkey Day and the rest of the year-end holiday season.
Koreans back at reopened factory: North and South Koreans got back to work today at a jointly run factory park after a five-month shutdown triggered by rising animosity between the rivals, with some companies quickly resuming production and others getting their equipment ready. South Korean business owners who have lost millions of dollars because of the hiatus say they'll need several months to recover. About 800 South Korean managers and tens of thousands of North Korean workers began returning today to the factories at the Kaesong park, just north of the Demilitarized Zone.