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Americans' personal income increased a strong 0.6 percent in February for the second consecutive month, putting cash in consumers pockets that should help the economy withstand the Asian financial crisis.

The gain, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $7.14 trillion, outpaced the healthy 0.4 percent advance in consumer spending, to a seasonally adjusted rate of $5.66 trillion, the Commerce Department said today.

Spending had surged 0.7 percent in January, revised up from a previous estimate of 0.4 percent and the most in six months.

Most categories of income increased in February, including the most important -- wages and salaries, up 0.9 percent after a 0.8 percent gain in January. Disposable personal income -- income after taxes -- rose 0.6 percent, following a 0.8 percent gain the month before. Americans' savings rate crept up from to an eight-month high of 4.3 percent in February from 4.2 percent in January.

Merger to create biggest utility
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- State regulators Thursday approved the $6.6 billion merger of two Southern California power companies, creating the nation's largest utility.

The marriage of Southern California Gas Co. parent Pacific Enterprises and Enova Corp., the parent of San Diego Gas & Electric, would form a utility with 6 million customers stretching from Los Angeles to Mexico. It also would create a formidable player in the nationwide move to open electricity markets to competition.

The merger still requires final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Justice Department and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

The new company, which would be known as Sempra Energy, would have revenues of $4.5 billion.

Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric would continue to operate separately without name changes.

Ford to base bonuses on goals
DETROIT (AP) -- Ford Motor Co. wants to pay executive bonuses based on factors such as vehicle quality and customer satisfaction.

Ford for the last 40 years has based its bonuses on profits. But starting next spring, it also wants to consider return on sales, return on equity at Ford Credit, how often the vehicles are repaired and customer satisfaction as measured by surveys.

Bonuses could increase by up to 50 percent if Ford exceeds the targets, spokesman Jim Cain said. They could drop by the same amount if targets aren't met.

Ford wants shareholders to approve the plan at its annual meeting May 14 in Cincinnati. The company paid $169 million in bonuses last year to its 5,000 top executives. Ford next month will disclose the executive bonuses it will pay this year.

Mortgage rates mixed in week
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The average rate on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages was unchanged this week at 7.08 percent, Freddie Mac, the mortgage company, said Thursday.

Fifteen-year mortgages, a popular option for refinancing, averaged 6.69 percent this week, down from 6.70 percent last week.

On one-year adjustable-rate mortgages, lenders were asking an average initial rate of 5.70 percent, up from 5.67 percent last week.

Yield declines on 52-week T-bill
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The interest rate on 52-week Treasury bills fell in Thursday's auction to an average discount rate of 5.110 percent, down from 5.125 percent at the last auction on Feb. 26.

The bills will carry an equivalent coupon interest rate of 5.391 percent with each $10,000 in face value selling for $9,483.30.

Bennetts invoke Fifth Amendment
SYRACUSE (AP) -- Edmund and Kathleen Bennett finally submitted to questioning about their company's role in a massive pyramid scheme. They just didn't provide any answers.

Bennett and his wife invoked the Fifth Amendment -- the right to avoid self incrimination -- on virtually every question asked of them by bankruptcy lawyers.

For almost two years, the Bennetts have said they were too ill, mentally and physically, to be questioned by bankruptcy lawyers. The couple, ages 70 and 67 -- moved to Florida in 1996.

Two weeks ago, a federal bankruptcy judge ordered them to return to New York for questioning.

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