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Business news in brief

In the Region

N.J. leads municipal bond downgrades

Bond ratings of New Jersey towns and cities are being reduced faster than in any other state as property values slide 11 percent and Gov. Corzine lowers municipal aid to cope with a $1 billion budget deficit. Moody's Investors Service cut ratings on $592 million in general obligation debt issued by 14 municipalities since October, about four times the rate for neighboring New York, the second-most-indebted state, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. - Bloomberg News

FDA: No proof Vytorin causes cancer

Federal drug regulators say an extensive data review shows there's no evidence that Merck's cholesterol drug Vytorin causes cancer, a suspicion raised last year by a patient study. Merck has major operations in the Philadelphia area. Still, the Food and Drug Administration says it cannot definitively rule out whether Vytorin is linked to a higher risk of cancer or death from cancer. Merck & Co. sells Vytorin, which generates roughly $5 billion a year in sales. It combines two types of cholesterol pills, Zetia and Zocor, which is available as an inexpensive generic drug. - AP

Condo fee amnesty granted

The Greater Philadelphia Condominium Managers Association has negotiated an amnesty program with the Department of Licenses and Inspections for unpaid housing inspection license fees levied before 2009 for all condos and co-op buildings in Philadelphia. Association vice president Kevin McGrath said there had been a history of billing issues with the city over the fees. Condos and co-ops must apply for the program by Dec. 31 because the amnesty does not extend beyond the end of the year, McGrath said. - Alan J. Heavens

Vanguard to start new fund

Vanguard Group Inc., Malvern, said it would launch early next year its first actively managed equity fund that invests primarily in small- to mid-capitalization U.S. value stocks. The mutual fund company filed a Securities and Exchange Commission registration statement to offer Vanguard Explorer Value Fund, probably in the first quarter of 2010. A value fund is one that invests in companies whose shares are considered undervalued based on financial measures, such as earnings. -Paul Schweizer


OPEC opts to hold output steady

OPEC held its year-old output targets unchanged yesterday, as the group grappled with overproduction by some in its ranks that could undercut efforts to support oil prices amid a fragile global economic recovery. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries wrapped up its meeting in Luanda, the Angolan capital, by deciding that the best plan of action was not to act. The 12-member bloc highlighted concerns about the strength of the global economic recovery, and again called on oil producers outside the group to cooperate in propping up oil markets. The lack of action appears meant to avoid shocking an oil market in which crude prices have stayed within range of OPEC's unofficial target of $75 a barrel for months. - AP

Retail sales slow due to storm

U.S. retail sales rose at the slowest pace in 15 weeks after record snowfalls shut stores early and kept consumers at home during one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Sales at stores open at least a year climbed 0.4 percent in the week ended Dec. 19 from a year ago, the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in a statement. Sales in December will rise about 2 percent, Michael Niemira, chief economist of the New York-based ICSC, repeated. - Bloomberg News

Lloyds to pay $217M in settlement

The Treasury Department says Lloyds TSB Bank P.L.C. has agreed to pay $217 million to settle claims that the bank manipulated money transfers to allow customers to skirt U.S. financial sanctions against Iran and other countries. The department said in a statement the alleged violations stemmed from the mid-1990s, when Lloyds, with the knowledge of its Iranian bank customers, altered or deleted information in wire transfer instructions. Lloyds routed at least 4,281 wire transfers worth nearly $37 million through third-party banks in the United States between June 2003 and August 2006. The department said that was in violation of regulations related to Iran, Sudan, and Libya. - AP

Citi denies cyber-attack report

The FBI is investigating a hacker attack on Citigroup Inc. that led to the theft of tens of millions of dollars, the Wall Street Journal reported. Citing anonymous government officials, the Journal reported that the hackers were connected to a Russian cyber gang. Two other computer systems, at least one of connected to a U.S. government agency, were also attacked. Citigroup denied the report. "We had no breach of the system and there were no losses, no customer losses, no bank losses," said Joe Petro, managing director of Citigroup's Security and Investigative services. "Any allegation that the FBI is working a case at Citigroup involving tens of millions of losses is just not true." - AP

Justice wants conditions on immunity

The Justice Department says giving American Airlines, British Airways and other partners antitrust immunity to work closer together on coordinating flights could cause fares to rise up to 15 percent on some transatlantic routes. The agency wants the Department of Transportation to impose conditions on a grant of immunity to protect competition. Justice said the proposed agreements would result in competitive harm on certain trans-Atlantic routes serving 2.5 million passengers annually. - AP

Sale of Word banned; Microsoft ready

A federal appeals court ordered Microsoft Corp. to stop selling its Word program in January and pay a Canadian software company $290 million for violating a patent, upholding the judgment of a lower court. But people looking to buy Word or Microsoft's Office package in the United States won't have to go without the software. Microsoft said it expects that new versions of the product, with the computer code in question removed, will be ready for sale when the injunction begins on Jan. 11. Toronto-based i4i Inc. sued Microsoft in 2007, saying it owned the technology behind a tool in the popular word processing program. - AP