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The nation is enjoying "moderate-to-brisk rates of growth" with industrial activity on the rise in most areas and strong demand for autos and back-to-school items pushing up retail sales, the Federal Reserve said today.

The Fed survey, compiled from reports from its 12 regional banks, said the strong economy is contributing to widespread labor shortages.

But even with the tight labor market, the Fed said, it had "few reports of acceleration in nominal wages and salaries although some districts note a substantial upswing in the cost of health-care benefits."

Consumer prices remain stable, the Fed survey reported.

The survey, known as the "beige book" for the color of its cover, will be used when Fed policy-makers meet Oct. 5 to review the central bank's stance on interest rates.

CAW, Ford report tentative pact
DETROIT (AP) -- Negotiators with the Canadian Auto Workers union and Ford Motor Co. reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract Tuesday night, averting a possible strike.

The contract calls for a raise of 4.5 percent a year for each of the three years with a one-time signing bonus of $1,000 in Canadian dollars, or $678 U.S. dollars, CAW President Buzz Hargrove said.

The average Canadian line worker at Ford earns a base wage of about $16 U.S. dollars an hour, while skilled workers earn $19 at current conversion rates. Similar workers in the United States earn $20.71 and $24.38 an hour. The contract also calls for basic pension benefits to be increased 25 percent over the next six years, Hargrove said.

The three-year contract covers 13,000 workers, who are scheduled to vote on the contract this weekend.

OPEC members reaffirm oil cuts
VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- OPEC members confirmed today that they would maintain their deep cuts in oil output until at least next March, a decision likely to make fuel bills more expensive this winter for consumers in North America and Europe.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries announced the move during the semiannual meeting of its 11 oil ministers. OPEC will stick to cuts of 4.3 million barrels per day that it has made over the past two years.

OPEC produces more than 26 million barrels of crude each day, at least 35 percent of the of the world's total.

Closing arguments in Microsoft case
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government and Microsoft wrapped up the antitrust case Tuesday, as the judge alternately heard the company described as a vigilant monopolist and as a company that fights tough but legally in the bareknuckles high-tech industry.

Citing dozens of internal e-mails and sworn testimony already in evidence, government lawyers said Microsoft was ruthless in trying to protect the dominance of its Windows software. "There are no other lawful situations in which a company has done what Microsoft has done," Justice Department lawyer David Boies said. He accused the company of having "used its power to squelch potential competitors, to keep them from emerging."

Microsoft lawyer John Warden criticized what he called the government's "astounding failures of proof," together with "red herrings, misstatements and omissions" presented during 76 days of courtroom testimony.

Warden charged that the antitrust case, filed under the Sherman Act, was largely driven by complaints from Microsoft's jealous industry rivals.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson is expected to announce his first verdict -- a decision about the facts of the case -- within four to eight weeks. The lawsuit is certain to drag through federal appeals courts for years unless the sides settle.

Unilever to cut product line
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) -- Unilever NV, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant whose 1,600 brands include Lipton tea, Breyer's ice cream and other household names, plans to slash its product line to 400 in a bid to cut $1.4 billion in costs.

Unilever, the world's largest maker of household goods, said it would keep brands that are No. 1 or 2 in their respective markets. Analysts expected it to hold onto top U.S. and European brands and shed less popular ones in peripheral markets in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.

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