Construction of new homes and apartments fell 2.3 percent last month to the lowest level since April as rising mortgage rates dampened demand. Builders started new homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.60 million units in November after being flat the month before, the Commerce Department said. Despite unusually warm weather, construction of single-family homes fell by 3.6 percent in November. But starts on condominiums and apartment buildings rose 3.7 percent.

Ernst & Young will pay $335 million to Cendant shareholders to settle charges that the accounting firm's audits of a predecessor company were inaccurate, according to the California Public Employees' Retirement System, which owns 3.1 million Cendant shares. Cendant, a travel and real estate franchising company, announced Dec. 7 that it will pay $2.83 billion to shareholders to settle claims that it inflated earnings at CUC International, which combined with HFS in 1997 to form Cendant.

A fraud complaint against nine current and former workers at Electronic Data Systems led to charges in federal court that they conspired to defraud the states of New York, Massachusetts and Delaware of $38 million. The complaint said the nine used computers and scanners from 1995 to 1999 to prepare and submit to the states fraudulent documents seeking the return of unclaimed funds. The workers allegedly said they were acting on behalf of EDS clients.

Monsanto was reported to be in merger talks with rival Pharmacia & Upjohn. Monsanto in the last two years held merger talks with American Home Products and DuPont, and has told investors it is considering all options. Those include splitting its Searle drug division and its agriculture unit, which some investors say are worth more separately than Monsanto's $27 billion market value. The Wall Street Journal reported the talks and said it wasn't certain whether the boards would vote on a combination this weekend.

General Electric set a 3-for-1 stock split and raised its quarterly dividend 17 percent. The moves signal confidence in strong growth and meeting the high end of Wall Street's expectations. GE also will increase its stock buyback program by $5 billion, to $22 billion. The increase in capital from the stock split is subject to approval by shareholders scheduled to meet on April 26.

Star Cruises, Asia's leading cruise line, launched a surprise bid for Norwegian Cruise Line, one day after rival Carnival gave up its hostile takeover effort. Star increased its stake in NCL Holding to 50.2 percent, and offered $4.37 a share for the remaining stock.

American Greetings, which is planning to acquire Gibson Greetings, said the Justice Department has requested additional information about its deal to buy Gibson for $162.3 million in cash.

CMGI's AltaVista, operator of a popular Internet search service, filed to raise as much as $300 million through an initial stock sale to help finance advertising and possible acquisitions.

Warner-Lambert, maker of the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor, wants a judge to delay Pfizer's bid to replace the Warner-Lambert board with directors who back Pfizer's $71 billion hostile takeover bid. The motion for a preliminary injunction would bar Pfizer from seeking the consent of Warner-Lambert shareholders to oust the current board until after a trial that could end a Lipitor marketing agreement between the two companies.

LOCAL BUSINESSCircuit City Group said its fiscal third-quarter net income rose 60 percent, to $52.3 million, from earnings from continuing operations of $32.7 million a year earlier. The Richmond-

based consumer-electronics chain also announced that W. Alan McCollough will become chief executive in June. McCollough, who is now the company's president and chief operating officer, will succeed Richard Sharp.

RECALLHannelore Gourmet Foods has voluntarily recalled its mousse truffle products after some were found to be contaminated with listeria bacteria. Hannelore recalled 400 pounds of D'Artagnan Pork Free Mousse Truffle that were distributed nationwide and possibly through Internet sales. The products are in 8-ounce packages and have the package number P9678 inside the Agriculture Department's seal of inspection, and the date code Dec 13 1999 is stamped on the back of each product.