Consumer prices excluding energy and food rose 0.2 percent in October, a sign that inflation remains in check. The 0.3 rise in all consumer prices, the most widely followed gauge of U.S. inflation, followed a 0.2 percent increase in September, the Labor Department said. Energy prices rose 1.9 percent, the most since April, as cooler weather boosted demand for natural gas and as concern rose that tension with Iraq may disrupt oil supplies. The Commerce Department reported that the U.S. trade deficit narrowed in September to $38 billion, from a revised $38.3 billion in August.

Wall Street Probe Close to Resolution

Federal and state securities regulators will meet today to review the fines and restrictions they plan to impose on a dozen of the nation's largest investment-banking firms later this week, including Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, Credit Suisse First Boston and Goldman Sachs. Regulators plan to call in four firms a day individually on Friday, Monday and Tuesday to announce what each firm's fine will be. Regulators are expected to force investment banks to buy analyst research from at least three separate places and to make the information available for free to investors, according to sources. How much each firm must spend on research will depend on how many retail customers it has and how much investment-banking business it does.

MORE NEWS

IBM said it has developed the world's fastest supercomputer and will deliver two that are able to perform a total of 460 trillion calculations a second to the U.S. government next year. The Energy Department is buying the machines under a four-year contract worth up to $267 million, an IBM spokesman said. The new design is almost three times as fast as the record holder, made by Japan's NEC.

Charter Communications, the cable company controlled by billionaire Paul Allen, will restate two years of financial results to record an additional $2.6 billion in expenses and liabilities. The $1.4 billion in franchise costs and $1.2 billion of deferred income tax liability will not change figures for sales or operating cash flow for 2000 and 2001, Charter said. The company posted losses in both years. .

HSBC Holdings, Britain's biggest bank, was accused of discriminatory lending by two U.S. groups that oppose its proposed $14.4 billion purchase of consumer finance company Household International. Inner City Press/Community on the Move and Fair Finance Watch allege HSBC denied applications for loans from black and Hispanic New Yorkers more than twice as many times than it did for whites.

Conseco said talks with creditors about restructuring more than $6 billion of debt may lead to a bankruptcy filing after the insurance and finance company reported that its third-quarter loss widened to $1.8 billion, from $410.6 million a year earlier.

Cisco Systems investors rejected, by a 10-to-1 ratio, a proposal calling for the maker of computer networking equipment to pay a dividend for the first time, the company announced at its annual shareholder meeting. Shareholder Barry Carney of Woodbridge put the measure on the proxy ballot.

Qwest Communications International is planning a debt exchange offer for some of its $22 billion in junk bonds, according to sources familiar with the matter. The move, coming after Qwest averted a liquidity crisis this summer, would allow the company to restructure some of its $25 billion in overall debt outside of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Qwest is the local phone company for 14 states in the Midwest and West.

INTERNATIONAL

Vivendi Universal, already facing criminal probes of its accounting under former chief executive Jean-Marie Messier, said an inquiry by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is now a formal investigation. The SEC inquiry, being conducted in conjunction with the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, intensifies scrutiny of how Vivendi operated and presented its finances under Messier.

AES's Drax, Britain's largest power station, canceled a contract to sell electricity to TXU's European unit, which said it was filing for bankruptcy protection. TXU Europe did not pay its October power bill, Drax said. Drax is a subsidiary of Arlington-based AES.

BMG Entertainment, the German-owned music giant, said it will merge two of its three major record labels, putting legendary record executive Clive Davis in charge of a combined RCA-J Records label group. BMG said it was buying Davis's 50 percent stake in J Records, a label established by the record executive with BMG's backing just two years ago.

Japan, eager to catch up with nations switching to computer systems other than Microsoft Windows, will study the possibility of using open-source software such as Linux at the government level. The Public Management Ministry is earmarking $410,000 for a panel of scholars and computer experts, including Microsoft officials, to finish the study by March 2004, a spokesman said.

LOCAL BUSINESS

Black & Decker said it will close its Easton, Md., plant, eliminating 1,300 jobs and leaving the toolmaker with virtually no manufacturing presence in its home state. Most of the Maryland jobs will move to Mexico; others will shift to Brazil and Fayetteville, N.C. The Towson-based company's layoffs could begin as early as January. The plant has 750 full-time employees and 550 contract workers. It produces the company's DeWalt tools.

US Airways said no other bidder emerged by a Friday deadline, making the Retirement Systems of Alabama the winning bid for a major ownership position in the carrier. In exchange for $740 million in interim and long-term financing, the pension fund will get a 37.5 percent stake and five of the airline's 13 board seats. The Arlington-based airline plans to submit its final restructuring plan to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court next month.

John A. Emens, an executive vice president at Allfirst Bank and the institution's chairman for the D.C. area, is retiring from the Baltimore-based bank at the end of this month. Emens, 58, has worked nearly 26 years at Allfirst and its predecessor bank, First National Bank of Maryland. He is one of about 200 Allfirst employees opting to take early retirement with enhanced benefits offered by Allfirst's parent, Allied Irish Banks.

EARNINGS

Nordstrom's third-quarter profit rose 76 percent, to $18.4 million. Sales rose 6.8 percent, to $1.32 billion.

Staples said its new format of smaller stores and its strong delivery business gave the office-supply chain its strongest third quarter ever. The Massachusetts-based retailer said profit rose to $128 million in the quarter ended Nov. 2, from $91 million in the year-earlier quarter. Sales were $3.1 billion, up from $2.8 billion.

Compiled from reports by the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones News Service and Washington Post staff writers

Cees van der Hoeven, CEO of Dutch retailer Royal Ahold, speaks at a news conference at Ahold headquarters in Zaandam. The owner of Giant Food reduced its annual earnings forecast again and plans to sell some businesses outside of food retailing and food service, after its third-quarter profit declined 15 percent, to $260 million.