Housing Starts Plummet 11.2% Drop Is Sharpest Since 1994

WASHINGTON - Seasonally adjusted housing starts fell 11.2% from February to March, faster than at any other time in more than six years, according to the Commerce Department figures released Tuesday.

Analysts had expected a 2.5% decline.

Though starts of single-family homes rose slightly, those of apartments and other multifamily homes plunged 41%. They had risen 30.5% in February and 16.8% in January.

Starts fell to an overall rate of 1.604 million units in March after surging to a 1.807 million rate in February. The last time they fell faster was in January 1994, by 17%.

Still, analysts said the full-year decline will be less drastic than March's.

"This is not indicative of a slowdown, because the plunge in multifamily construction was a heavy influence on these numbers," said Richard Yamarone, senior economist at Argus Research Corp. in New York. Housing "may be moderating somewhat, but not to a worrisome degree. Mortgage rates are softening a bit, and that will boost housing in coming months."

-Bloomberg News

UBS Stops Seeking Private Banking Deals

ZURICH - UBS AG, Europe's third-biggest bank, is no longer actively seeking acquisitions in private banking, since the price of potential targets has proven too steep, chairman Alex Krauer said Tuesday.The Swiss company plans instead to focus on expanding existing businesses and winning over more clients, Mr. Krauer told shareholders at an annual meeting.

UBS shares have lost almost a quarter of their value since June 1998, when the bank was formed by the merger of Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp. Chief executive Marcel Ospel acknowledged that the company's stock may not recover soon, though he said UBS has started off the year well.

- Bloomberg News

Golden State Bancorp Earnings Up 20%

SAN FRANCISCO - Golden State Bancorp reported it earned $85 million, or 60 cents a share, in the first quarter, up 20% from 1999.Operating earnings, which excluded a $1.2 million gain from paying down debt, met analysts' expectations of 59 cents a share.

The thrift company's net interest margin declined to 2.56%, from 2.46% in the fourth quarter, reflecting the effect of rising rates on its mortgage business. But Carl B. Webb, the president and chief executive officer, cited progress in Golden State's commercial banking initiatives, including mutual fund sales, commercial real estate lending, auto lending, consumer loans, and commercial business lending.

FleetBoston Approves $2B Stock Buyback

BOSTON - FleetBoston Financial Corp.'s board of directors authorized a $2 billion share buyback Tuesday.At current prices, this would comprise about 57 million shares, or about 6% of the company's stock.

In trading Tuesday, FleetBoston shares rose $1.1875, or 3.4%, to $36.

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