Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank President Dennis Lockhart said on Thursday the U.S. economic recovery has started and the Fed could stop short of buying the full amount of mortgage-related securities it said it would buy to boost the economy.

Programs to buy $200 billion of mortgage-agency debt and $1.25 trillion of mortgage-backed securities were deliberately described as able to purchase up to those amounts, Lockhart told reporters after speaking at the World Affairs Council of Jacksonville.

That caveat was intended to give policy-makers flexibility in ending the programs short of the full target amount should conditions warrant, he said.

So it's not inconceivable that we'll decide to do less, Lockhart said.

The Fed has bought $836 billion in mortgage-backed securities and $122 billion in agency notes, according to the most recent information.

The Atlanta Fed president, a voter on the Fed's policy setting committee, joins Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker in suggesting the central bank might curtail its purchases because the recovering economy may no longer need additional stimulus. The Fed launched the securities buying initiatives as an alternative to cutting interest rates, which it had already cut to near zero.

Lockhart said he expects the Fed to discuss how best to phase out the mortgage-related securities buying program, which ends in December, at its next meeting September 22-23.

He said the U.S. economic recovery had begun but that it would likely be a period of sluggish growth.

Overall, the U.S. economy is improving but still fragile, Lockhart said in his speech.

Stabilization is proceeding, and the first stages of recovery are under way, he said.

The Atlanta Fed president said the Fed has been able to respond aggressively to the financial crisis without raising inflation expectations because it has a reputation for independence from political influence.

He said that information disclosure requirements for the Fed should not go so far as to open the monetary policy process to short-term political considerations.

I welcome further discussion on ways the Fed can be more accountable and transparent but always within the context of maintaining ... monetary policy independence, he said.

Congress is considering a measure that would expose Fed actions to greater scrutiny.

Lockhart, a voter on the Fed's policy-setting panel this year, said over the medium term he sees a slow recovery as financial markets heal and the economy adjusts to businesses holding leaner inventories and to more frugal consumers.

Often a deep recession is followed by a sharp rebound in business and overall economic activity, he said. At least beyond the third quarter, I do not foresee this trajectory.

Rising defaults and falling property values in commercial real estate pose a risk to the outlook, Lockhart warned.

Inflation should remain contained for some time, he said.

Fed officials have been cautiously optimistic in recent comments that the recession, which began in December 2007, may have ended. However, officials consistently warn they expect only sluggish growth accompanied by high unemployment in the months ahead.

The central bank has said it will keep benchmark interest rates, which are near zero, at an exceptionally low level for a long time to support the recovery. Even so, the Fed moved at its August meeting to phase out its one of its emergency programs.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)