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Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods surged in December, led by the biggest jump in demand for airplanes and other transportation equipment in more than a year.

The Commerce Department reported today that orders for durable goods -- items expected to last at least three years -- rose 4.1 percent last month, the biggest increase since July, to a seasonally adjusted $212.9 billion.

That was much bigger than the solid 0.8 percent gain many analysts were anticipating and followed a 1 percent increase in November.

For the year, orders for durable goods, including items from air conditioners to airplanes, rose 7.1 percent, matching the increase posted in 1997. In 1998, durable-goods orders rose 3.6 percent.

Separately, the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose by 1,000 last week to 266,000, the Labor Department said today.

U.S. acts to ease fuel prices

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Energy Department will delay deliveries to its emergency oil reserve in hopes of easing the recent surge in fuel prices and will closely monitor heating oil markets, Secretary Bill Richardson said Wednesday.

The administration has been under pressure to act as oil prices have edged close to $30 a barrel from a low of less than $12 a barrel a year ago. Also, heating oil and diesel fuel prices have risen rapidly.

The department will renegotiate contracts to postpone delivery on 5 million barrels of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Louisiana and Texas, he said.

The action is intended to put more oil into the market and ease prices. But many economists question whether it would have much impact.

Eveready develops new Energizer

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Eveready Battery Co. Inc. has developed a new battery that lasts longer -- in some cases, more than twice as long as standard alkaline batteries, the company announced Thursday.

The new Energizer e2 (e-squared) titanium battery is expected to begin appearing on store shelves this summer. The suggested retail price will be 32 percent higher than that of the regular Energizer battery. Energizer e2 uses a form of titanium compound and new cell construction to give the battery longer life.

Ford workers get $8,000 bonus

DEARBORN, Mich.(PRNewswire) -- Ford Motor Company's eligible hourly employees in the United States will receive a record average of $8,000 in profit sharing for 1999, Ford announced today.

The amount surpasses the former record payout of $6,100 for 1998.

This will be the 14th payment made under the company's Profit Sharing Plan since it was first agreed to by Ford and the UAW in 1982. The total of these averages comes to $40,575 for those 14 payments.

Ford had approximately 103,700 active U.S. hourly workers on the rolls at the end of 1999. Approximately 109,000 people will receive profit sharing checks on March 3.

Treasury notes hit 3-year high
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Yields on two-year Treasury notes rose in Wednesday's auction to the highest level in nearly three years.

The yield was 6.434 percent, up from 6.233 percent at the last auction on Dec. 22. It was the highest rate since two-year notes sold for 6.460 percent on April 22, 1997.

The notes will carry a coupon interest rate of 6 3/8 percent with each $10,000 in face value selling for $9,989.10.

In other business news

John Hancock Financial Services Inc. raised $1.7 billion in an initial stock sale, the biggest this year. The sale of 102 million shares at $17 ended John Hancock's 137 years of ownership by its customers.

C. Michael Armstrong, the chairman and chief executive of AT&T Corp., got a $14.9 million pay package last year, a 28 percent increase, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

General Motors will merge its North American car and truck operations into engineering groups in a move designed to save money and mirror the blending of passenger vehicle types.

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