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Niagara Mohawk Power Corp.'s losses grew from $35.1 million in 1999 to $46.5 million in 2000, with utility officials Thursday largely blaming higher-than-expected prices for natural gas used for electricity production. Last year's loss per share of 28 cents was up from 19 cents a share in 1999. However, Niagara Mohawk officials said the company's performance the last two years has been a marked improvement over the $157.4 million or 95 cents a share the utility lost in 1998. Earnings last year were $1.13 billion, down from $1.27 billion in 1999. The utility said its "aggressive" program to lower debt paid off in 2000. More than $300 million in debt was retired or refinanced by the company, and interest costs fell for the year by $19.4 million or 20 cents per share. Niagara Mohawk Chief Financial Officer William Edwards said the company hopes to retire more than $600 million in debt in 2001, achieving further savings. The National Grid Group of Coventry, England, is pursuing a $3 billion acquisition of Niagara Mohawk. And the Baltimore-based Constellation Nuclear Group wants to acquire two nuclear power plants on Lake Ontario owned by Niagara Mohawk and three other utilities for just over $1 billion. Edwards said he believes the approval of state and federal regulators to the nuclear plant sales should come by the middle of this year and the go-ahead for the National Grid acquisition should be late in the year. Niagara Mohawk officials believe they have the contracts in place with electricity suppliers to provide enough power to meet this summer's "expected load" demand, Edwards said. Niagara Mohawk's electric revenues for 2000 were $3.2 billion, almost exactly the same as in 1999. But the company said its retail sales for the year dropped by more than 10 percent as more customers started buying power from other energy companies. Natural gas revenues in 2000 were $658.5 million, up 13 percent from 1999. The increases were due to higher natural gas prices and to cold weather, company officials said.

Dell Computer Corp. cut 1,700 jobs Thursday in response to slowing sales, which have stalled profit growth at the nation's leading personal computer seller. The announcement came hours before the Round Rock-based company released its fourth quarter results, which were a penny short of expectations. The company said earnings for the quarter ended Feb. 2 were $434 million, or 16 cents per share, compared with $436 million, or 16 cents per share in the year-ago quarter. Excluding a one-time charges from job cuts and company consolidation, Dell earned $508 million, or 18 cents per share. Analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial originally had pegged earnings at 25 cents per share before adjusting downward to 19 cents per share when the company warned of a shortfall last month. Revenue for the fourth quarter totaled $8.7 billion, 1 percent lower than first expected, but a 28 percent increase over the $6.8 billion in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2000.

Hewlett-Packard Co.'s first-quarter net earnings plunged 59 percent but the high-tech bellwether still met Wall Street's lowered expectations Thursday. "Clearly, this was a tough quarter and our results reflect that," said Carly Fiorina, HP's president, chief executive and chairwoman. The company also is at the mercy of worsening economic conditions, she said. In the three months ending Jan. 31, HP had net profits of $328 million, or 17 cents per share, down from $794 million, or 38 cents per share, in the year-ago quarter. Revenue rose just 2 percent, to $11.9 billion. Excluding all extraordinary items, the computer and printer giant earned $727 million, or 37 cents per share, down 33 percent from $825 million, or 40 cents per share, a year ago. North American revenues dropped 6 percent, a trend Fiorina blamed on "continued deterioration in the U.S. economy and related weakness in consumer and business (information-technology) spending."

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