Washington - There are "grounds for optimism" that the ailing US jobs market will pick up this year, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress Tuesday.
Sounding an upbeat tone amid high levels of unemployment, Bernanke said positive data in December and January could auger well for the next few quarters.
"We do see some grounds for optimism about the job market over the next few quarters," Bernanke told the Senate's banking committee.
He cited a drop in unemployment over the last two months as well as figures showing fewer Americans have claimed jobless benefits over the past few weeks, and "an improvement in firms' hiring plans."
His comments likely will boost hopes that February unemployment figures, which will be released on Friday, could be better than expected.
Economist expect that the unemployment rate will edge up to 9.1%, from 9.0% and after two months of solid declines.
But Bernanke warned the end was not yet in sight for what many have dubbed a "jobless recovery."
After 8.75 million people lost their jobs in the recession, he said the recovery still has some way to go.
"Until we see a sustained period of stronger job creation, we cannot consider the recovery to be truly established.
"Private-sector employment expanded by only a little more than one million during 2010, a gain barely sufficient to accommodate the inflow of recent graduates and other entrants to the labor force," Bernanke said.
The Fed has predicted that the unemployment rate will be stuck at around 8.8% to 9.0% this year.
Nevertheless Bernanke also echoed his own recent comments pointing to a recovery that was on a firmer footing, with consumers and businesses spending more despite persistently high unemployment.
The Fed last month sharply increased its economic growth estimates for this year, predicting gross domestic product would rise by 3.4% to 3.9%, versus the 3.0-3.6% range predicted last November.