Business highlights

WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal regulators signed off conditionally Friday on the $46 billion merger of Qwest Communications and U S West. But signs of strain between the two telecommunications companies raised questions about how they will make the marriage work.

The Federal Communications Commission's approval of the deal with conditions came just after the collapse of Qwest Chairman Joe Nacchio's hopes to strike a deal with Deutsche Telekom AG to take over both Qwest and U S West.

When the German telephone company walked away Thursday, Qwest blamed U S West for scuttling the talks. U S West, which last week threatened to sue Qwest, said it was protecting its shareholders.


LONDON (AP) - The world's richest countries have depleted their oil inventories to the lowest levels seen in four years, a widely read survey said Friday, reinforcing concerns that motorists will soon be paying even stiffer prices to fill their tanks.

Pinched profit margins for oil refineries have caused a slowdown in the production of gasoline and other products, and this delay could lead to gas shortages during the peak driving season this summer, the International Energy Agency reported.

World output of oil increased in February by a slight 0.3 percent to 75 million barrels per day.


HOUSTON (AP) - Continental Airlines attempted Friday to impose a new fare increase of up to $40 per round trip, blaming the rising cost of fuel.

The airline led the industry in a $20 boost in January, but had to back off on second increase of $30 two weeks ago after other airlines wouldn't follow.

Generally when airlines raise fares, the hikes will remain in place if their competitors also raise fares. Otherwise, the fare hikes are repealed, as happened in February.


SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - Microsoft Corp.'s new X-Box entertainment game console may have gained a number of converts among skeptical developers Friday, though whether that will translate to commercial success against already formidable competition is far from certain.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who introduced the new console at the Game Developers Conference here, put his company's challenge succinctly: ''One key element that is crucial is making it fun, making sure that people are entertained by what they do.''

The X-Box promises to deliver on that challenge when it's released in late 2001 as Microsoft moves to capture a chunk of the $11 billion gaming industry from the Big 3 video game makers: Sony, Sega and Nintendo.


FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) - Shares in Infineon Technologies AG, the semiconductor branch of electronics giant Siemens AG, are expected to explode in value when they hit the market Monday in Germany's biggest public offering since Deutsche Telekom went on the block in 1996.

The sale, coming as the former loss-producing subsidiary is staging an impressive comeback, could boost Siemens' coffers with billions of dollars, bolstering it with funds for further investment.

The German electronics company plans to float 29 percent of Infineon, issuing up to 173 million shares between $28 and $34 apiece. At the high end, the sale is expected to raise $5.8 billion.


NEW YORK (AP) - Hoping to close the ''digital divide'' between whites and minorities, the United Negro College Fund announced a $130 million partnership with two computer industry giants Friday to bring black colleges and universities into the Internet era.

Microsoft and IBM have pledged $100 million in cash and equipment for students and faculty members at 39 black schools. AT&T; is contributing $1 million, and the UNCF hopes to raise $29 million.

Many historically black colleges and universities lag behind other institutions in their ability to help students and teachers get onto the Internet, said UNCF president William Gray III.


ATLANTA (AP) - Fighting off a discrimination lawsuit, Coca-Cola Co. plans to tie top managers' pay - including chairman and chief executive Doug Daft's - to new diversity goals being developed at the soft-drink giant.

Coke is ''determined to have a diverse culture, from top to bottom, that benefits from the perspectives of each individual,'' Daft said in a company-wide e-mail distributed Thursday. ''What gets measured gets done.''

Daft also said he is creating a new office of diversity, to be led by a vice president who will report directly to him.


FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) - While officials of Deutsche Bank AG and Dresdner Bank AG are touting cost savings of nearly $3 billion annually because of their pending $30 billion merger, investors are turning their backs on the companies - at least for now.

Shares in both sank Friday for a second day in a row as analysts warned that predicted benefits from the merger would be a long time in coming. But one company has emerged as an instant winner: insurance giant Allianz AG.

For Allianz - which is taking a stake in the retail operations Deutsche and Dresdner want to get rid of - the merger is seen as clearing the way for it to sell insurance policies at the corner bank and establish itself as Germany's dominant ''bancassurer,'' a term for rolling both businesses into one.


WASHINGTON (AP) - Consumer groups and unions are urging Congress to use caution before overhauling the nation's pension law to ease restrictions that employers and mutual fund companies face when they give workers investment advice.

Company officials, speaking Friday before a House Education and Workforce Committee panel, said easing the law would allow them to improve the way they advise the nation's workers, 55 million of whom have invested in defined contribution retirement plans. The largest portion of these investments are in 401 (k) plans.

Unions and consumer groups, however, have expressed concern that if Congress changes the Employee Retirement Income Security Act as planned, workers may fall victim to ''conflicts of interest'' by firms promoting products.


WASHINGTON (AP) - Two loans to Iran, the first in seven years, are likely to be approved soon by the World Bank over U.S. opposition, bank officials and representatives of other countries say.

Bank and Iranian officials plan a final round of negotiations in Paris before the end of the month on the $231 million package, bank officials said. If the talks succeed, the two projects will go before the bank's 24 executive directors, including Jan Piercy, the U.S. representative, probably next month.

Federal law requires the United States to oppose loans by the World Bank and other international institutions to countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism. Iran is among seven countries on the list.


By The Associated Press

Stocks were mostly lower Friday as the consumer products sector, already trampled by Procter & Gamble's disappointing earnings forecast, slipped further on a similar warning from Dial Corp. High-tech stocks fell as investors cashed in some gains from the sector's recent rally.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 81.91 to 9,928.82, capping a highly volatile week. The Dow fell 438.38 points for the week, a loss of 4.2 percent.

The Nasdaq composite index, which fluctuated between gains and losses throughout the session, finished up 1.76 at 5,048.62, achieving a new closing high by the slimmest of margins. The Nasdaq rose 133.83 points during the week, a gain of 2.7 percent.

Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 6.62 to 1,395.07.

Hog futures jumped 2 percent to their highest level in more than a year Friday as rising beef prices intensified speculation that more supermarkets and other retailers will showcase pork as a less expensive alternative.


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