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BIZ BITS

ONE THING YOU CAN SAY about the pundits who each year predict the end is near for rising home prices: They've been consistently wrong. Those who fear we're in a fragile real estate bubble can relax, at least for now, Kiplinger.com says, as it looks like another strapping year for real estate prices. David Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, speaks for most chastened housing-market analysts when he says the chance that median home prices will drop is "zero nationally, zero in major regions and close to zero in any state," though some individual cities may see declines.

PAPER OR PLASTIC? In the long run, plastic is a better choice for the environment, plastic-bag manufacturers and garbage experts told Bankrate.com. "Paper bags are easier to recycle, but they weigh 10 times as much," says Robert Bateman of Roplast Industries, a bag manufacturer. "They use (almost three times) more energy and cause more waste in the process of manufacturing." And Bill Rathje, a professor specializing in garbage, says thicker paper bags don't degrade any faster than plastic bags in landfills, plus they fill up the landfills faster.

IF YOU WANT to buy stocks but don't have a lot of money, don't worry. You can get started with as little as $20, Motley Fool says. One of the best ways to invest small amounts of money cheaply is through Dividend Reinvestment Plans (DRPs), also known as Drips, and Direct Stock Purchase Plans (DSPs) that allow you to bypass brokers and their commissions by buying stock directly from the companies or their agents. More than 1,000 major corporations offer these types of stock plans, many of them for free or with fees low enough to make it worthwhile to invest small amounts at a time.

LOS ANGELES PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANY Amgen gets the nod from Forbes as the best-managed company of the year for 2004. The company "is on the verge of a research renaissance that will target cancer, diabetes and more," the magazine says.

WOMEN HAVE BEEN FIGHTING for decades to narrow the wage gap with their male counterparts. Yet an annual survey suggests that in 2003, they fell even farther behind. The National Association for Female Executives' 2004 Salary Survey found that full-time female employees earned 76 cents for every $1 earned by male peers, down from 77 cents in 2002. It's the same for even the highly educated. For example, women anesthesiologists earned $64,000 less than their male colleagues.

Compiled from Times wires and Web sites.

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