Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen says the central bank would continue to wind back its stimulus programme, even while noting that the US labour market has a way to go to recover.

"If there's a significant change in the outlook, certainly we would be open to reconsidering, but I wouldn't want to jump to conclusions here," she told the Senate Banking Committee."

The Federal Open Market Committee is scheduled to meet on March 18, having trimmed its monthly bond purchasing programme by US$10 billion to US$65 billion last month.

Yellen appeared before the Congress two weeks ago but her appearance before the Senate was delayed after the US was hit by snowstorms. Data since then has been weaker than expected, including some measures of the labour market, home building, manufacturing and retailing.

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Retail Metrics said American retailers as a group recorded the first decline in profit since 2009, based on quarterly results from 62 of the 122 chains it follows.

US jobless claims rose by 14,000 to 348,000 last week, Labor Department figures showed, beating estimates, while orders for durable goods fell 1 per cent in January, less than economists had predicted and stoking expectations snowstorms hadn't dented activity as much as feared..

Yellen said the FOMC sees the world's biggest economy and its labour market expanding "at a moderate pace this year and next" while "the unemployment rate will continue to decline toward its longer-run sustainable level, and inflation will move back toward 2 per cent over coming years."

Stocks on Wall Street edged higher as she spoke, with traders picking up on her willingness to slow the pace of tapering should the economy prove weaker than the Fed expects. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.3 per cent to 16,238.96, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 0.2 per cent to 1849.12 to near a record and the Nasdaq Composite climbed 0.4 per cent to 4308.72.

"It's a bit of a change. She seems to be more willing to step back on the accelerator than she was when she last spoke to Congress," Matt Maley, an equity strategist with Miller Tabak & Co, told Bloomberg.

West Texas Intermediate crude fell 0.4 per cent to US$102.15 a barrel and gold gained 0.4 per cent to US$1,333.80 an ounce.

The yen strengthened 0.2 per cent to 102.19 per dollar as traders were drawn to the 'safe haven' currency amid rising tensions in Ukraine. International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde said Ukraine had made a formal request to the IMF for financial support. The nation's lawmakers are set to approve Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister to lead an interim government after pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov was reported as saying.

In Europe, the Euro Stoxx 50 fell 0.4 per cent to 3134.94 amid concern about rising tensions in the Crimea region of Ukraine, where pro-Russian sentiment is strong. Crimea politicians have voted to hold a referendum on the status of the region, according to Interfax, while Russia, which bases its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, has stepped up military exercises.

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Royal Bank of Scotland tumbled 7.7 per cent after posting its biggest loss in four years, while Allianz SE fell 2.3 per cent after earnings missed estimates.

"The markets had gone ahead of themselves and we may see investors taking some risk out of the table. Volatility has also come back to the fore," Thomas Malloch, investment manager at Redmayne Bentley, told Reuters.