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BUSINESS TODAY

U.S. EXISTING HOME SALES RISE: Sales of previously occupied homes rose 4.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.22-million, the National Association of Realtors reported. Cheaper mortgage rates encouraged Americans to snap up existing homes in November, pushing sales to the highest level in three months. Mortgage rates have fallen since hitting a five-year high of 8.64 percent in May. The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in November was 7.75 percent, down from 7.80 percent in October.

JOBLESS CLAIMS DROP: The number of U.S. workers filing new claims for state unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell 23,000 to 333,000 for the week ended Dec. 23. Initial claims have averaged 300,255 a week so far this year, compared with an average of 297,000 for each week last year. The four-week moving average of claims, a less volatile indicator, fell to 340,750 _ the lowest in five weeks _ from 347,750. Because the report covers the week just before the holidays, 18 states used estimates in their reports, a Labor Department spokeswoman said. That means next week's report might show a larger-than-usual revision to this week's numbers, she said.

UPS RAISES RATES: Following the lead of rival FedEx Corp., United Parcel Service said it will increase its air shipment rates 3.7 percent effective Feb. 5. International shipments will rise 2.9 percent. Ground service _ the bulk of UPS's business _ will rise 3.1 percent for all weights and zones, and the fee for residential deliveries will increase from $1 to $1.05 on all packages. A UPS spokesman said rate increases are planned months before they are announced and that similarities with FedEx's prices are "mere coincidence."

CREDIT CARD COMPANY PROPOSES SETTLEMENT: Bank One's First USA unit has proposed paying $40-million to settle lawsuits alleging improper charges to its credit card customers. A class-action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis, alleges that First USA _ the nation's largest issuer of Visa cards _ hit cardholders with improper late fees and finance charges. The proposed settlement is outlined in a letter First USA sent to customers, though the company denies any wrongdoing.

PRICELINE FOUNDER TO LEAVE BOARD: The founder and vice chairman of Priceline.com Inc., Jay S. Walker, will leave the company's board, effective Sunday. Walker is vacating his position to focus on the intellectual property portfolio of Walker Digital LLC, the company said in a statement released after markets closed. Shares of Priceline were down 9 cents, or 6.7 percent, to $1.31.

RAYMOND JAMES SHARES RISE: Stock in Raymond James Financial Inc. is up sharply this week, but officials of the St. Petersburg company said they know of no reason for the big move. Wednesday the stock gained $3.88 to close at $37.25. Thursday it traded as high as $41 before closing at $37.94. The stock has more than doubled in price since April.

Note to readers

Robert Trigaux's column will resume soon.

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