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CONSUMER CONFIDENCE HITS HIGHEST MARK IN 31 YEARS

NEW YORK (AP) -- Consumer confidence soared to a 31-year high in December, reflecting good feelings over the nation's strong job market and low inflation, the Conference Board reported today.

"Consumers are in very good spirits as the 20th century comes to a close," said Lynn Franco, director of the research center of the business-financed research group.

Consumer sentiment is an important economic indicator because consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the nation's overall economic activity.

The latest confidence reading provides further evidence that the overall U.S. economic expansion that began in March 1991 should continue through February to become the longest in U.S. history, surpassing the 106-month expansion of the 1960s.

But the high reading also -- coupled with strong retail spending -- could rekindle fears that inflation-fighters at the Federal Reserve will feel compelled to begin raising interest rates early next year to cool the economy. At its meeting a week ago, the Fed decided to postpone any rate hikes until after the Y2K problems had been dealt with.

The Conference Board said its index of consumer confidence rose to 141.4 in December, the second-highest reading since the business-financed study group began keeping records 32 years ago.

It was only exceeded by the reading of 142.3 in October 1968.

Home sales up 6% in month< WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sales of existing homes surged in November, after four straight months of declines, as confident consumers scrambled to lock in deals before mortgage rates climbed higher.

The National Association of Realtors said today that sales of existing single-family homes rose 6 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.09 million units.

"Clearly there are many first-time buyers purchasing starter homes and repeat buyers purchasing their second and third homes, who are anxious to buy before the new year," said NAR President Dennis Cronk.

The association expects existing-home sales to total a record 5.18 million units this year, which would be a 4.4 percent increase over last year's record of 4.97 million units. The increase in November's sales was stronger than the 4.3 percent rise many analysts were forecasting.

A strong economy, low unemployment and tame inflation, give consumers plenty of cash to spend. Consumers rushed to buy existing homes before mortgage rates, which have been on an upward climb this year, move higher, economists said.

Buffett, wife donate $134 million

OMAHA, Neb. (Reuters) -- Warren Buffett, the billionaire chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said Monday he and his wife, Susan, have donated 2,500 shares, worth about $134 million at current prices, of the company's class A common stock to four unnamed charities.

In a rare announcement from company headquarters, Buffett said he and his wife disclosed the donations to avoid confusion that any selling of stock was involved.

"Mr. and Mrs. Buffett are making this announcement because there have been occasions when gifts by them have been reported in the media as sales," the statement said. "Mr. and Mrs. Buffett have never sold any Berkshire shares."

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange, class A shares closed down $400 at $53,600, well below the March high of $81,000.

Buffett, who turns 70 next year, is recognized as one of the world's greatest investors. Berkshire Hathaway and its subsidiaries engage in a number of businesses, including The Buffalo News and insurance firms GEICO Corp and General Re.

Yields decline on Treasury bills

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Treasury Department sold $9 billion in three-month bills at a discount rate of 5.300 percent, down from 5.400 percent last week.

An additional $8 billion was sold in six-month bills at a rate of 5.505 percent, down from 5.600 percent.

The new discount rates understate the actual return to investors -- 5.463 percent for three-month bills with a $10,000 bill selling for $9,866.00, and 5.757 percent for a six-month bill selling for $9,721.70.

Separately, the Federal Reserve said Monday that the average yield for one-year Treasury bills, the most popular index for making changes in adjustable rate mortgages, rose to 5.97 percent last week from 5.85 percent the previous week.

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