New Century Financial Corp. is receiving less money from U.S. Bancorp this year than it has for the past two. Whether that indicates that the Minneapolis banking company has cooled to the Irvine, Calif., subprime lender or that New Century simply needs less money, is a matter of debate.

This much is certain: U.S. Bancorp has committed itself to invest only $20 million in New Century this year, down from $40.7 million last year and $25 million in 1998. And late last week, New Century said it had hired the investment bank PaineWebber Inc. to help it explore "strategic options," including a sale.

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