A hint from Kuwait's oil minister that OPEC would consider increasing supplies if prices remained at current levels for much longer soothed energy traders and cooled red-hot energy markets around the world. Light, sweet crude for February delivery slumped $1.35 to settle at $31.37 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Wholesale prices for heating oil and gasoline also fell. In London, Brent crude futures for February delivery fell 50 cents, to $29.66 per barrel, on the International Petroleum Exchange. At the retail level, though, gasoline prices remain on an upward trend as refiners pass along the high cost of crude to motorists. The Energy Department reported that the average retail price of unleaded gasoline rose 4 cents last week, to $1.44 per gallon. The average price at the pump has now gone up 8 cents in the past two weeks.

Chip Sales Up 20 Percent in November

Worldwide semiconductor sales rose almost 20 percent in November, led by the wireless sector, the Semiconductor Industry Association said. Chip sales climbed to $12.7 billion, from $10.6 billion a year earlier, as more people replaced their cell phones and bought products such as DVD players and video games, a spokeswoman for the association said. November sales, up 1.3 percent from October, don't necessarily represent consumers' holiday purchases, she said.

MORE NEWS

Tribune Co. agreed to buy two television stations, making it the largest affiliate group of the WB Network. Tribune said it will purchase KPLR-TV in St. Louis and KWBP-TV in Portland, Ore., from Acme Communications for $275 million. The purchases will boost Tribune's ownership to 26 TV stations, including 19 WB affiliates. Tribune owns 22.5 percent of WB Network, and AOL Time Warner owns the rest.

J.C. Penney expects sales at department stores open at least a year to increase 4.5 percent for December, exceeding the company's earlier expectations for same-store sales. This would outshine results of other retailers, which are expecting a lackluster showing. Wal-Mart projected that same-store sales would increase 2 to 3 percent, rather than 3 to 5 percent as originally forecast. Federated Department Stores expects same-store sales to decline 2.5 percent. Major retail chains will report their December sales results on Jan. 9.

Mid America Bank will invest more than $10 million and open two branches in minority neighborhoods to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit, federal prosecutors said. Mid America was accused of redlining, or failing to provide products and services in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The Illinois-based savings and loan denies the accusations, saying they were based on outdated census data. The settlement must still be approved by federal court.

International Business Machines said it won a computer services contract from J.P. Morgan Chase that is valued at more than $5 billion. J.P. Morgan decided in November to hold exclusive contract talks with IBM, eliminating Electronic Data Systems from contention. Almost 4,000 workers at J.P. Morgan who perform tasks such as installing computers and developing software will leave the bank to join IBM.

T-bill rates were mixed. The discount rate on three-month Treasury bills auctioned yesterday was 1.185 percent, unchanged from the previous week. Rates on six-month bills fell to 1.220 percent from 1.240 percent. The actual return to investors is 1.207 percent for three-month bills, with a $10,000 bill selling for $9,970, and 1.245 percent for a six-month bill selling for $9,938.30. Separately, the Federal Reserve said the average yield for one-year Treasury bills, a popular index for changing adjustable-rate mortgages, fell to 1.41 percent, from 1.43 percent last week.

Kemper Insurance said its president and chief operating officer, William Smith, is retiring after six years with the company. The departure of Smith, 58, comes a week after Standard & Poor's dropped the insurer's credit ratings by four levels and the company bought back a $125 million stake in a subsidiary from billionaire Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway. Chairman and chief executive David Mathis, who has worked at the insurer since 1956, will postpone his own retirement to continue running the company, the company said.

Genome Therapeutics and Wyeth extended their agreement to develop gene-based treatments for osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease, for one year, to the end of 2003. Genome Therapeutics said it expects to get as much as $118 million, excluding royalties, from Wyeth.

California regulators approved SBC Communications' plan to provide in-state long-distance service, removing the last hurdle preventing the nation's second-largest local phone company from entering the massive market. San Antonio-based SBC, long known in California as Pacific Bell, has spent the past few years trying to meet state and federal requirements so it can compete in California's $15 billion long-distance market. The company will now be able to complete long-distance calls made within the state, as well as from one state to another.

Quicken Loans has settled government charges that it failed to notify thousands of customers who completed online mortgage applications that they had been denied preapproval because of bad credit reports. Quicken argued that it was not rejecting the applicants based on their credit reports but was asking them to call the company for further steps in the application process. The company said it agreed to settle the Federal Trade Commission's case without fines and change its procedures to avoid the cost of a legal fight.

The Treasury Department issued new rules designed to make it more difficult for tax-shelter users to hide behind professional advice. The proposed regulations prohibit taxpayers from relying upon an opinion or advice from a tax practitioner as a defense to the accuracy-related penalty for potentially abusive transactions that are not disclosed. Taxpayers also will not be allowed to rely upon a professional's opinion as a penalty defense if they fail to disclose transactions that are based on a position that a tax regulation is invalid.

INTERNATIONAL

Japan has alerted the United States that it found traces of a corn that wasn't approved for humans to eat in a U.S. shipment, an Agriculture Department official said. Japanese agriculture officials warned the United States in a letter Friday that tests on the corn showed that the shipment included StarLink -- a biotech corn that was approved for only animals to eat. A USDA spokesman said officials are investigating the situation.

German exports rose 1 percent this year while imports dropped 4 percent, according to preliminary government figures. If those numbers prove to be accurate, Germany's trade surplus this year would be $132 billion, a 33 percent increase from 2001.

China will allow Citigroup to buy a stake in Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, the Chinese lender said. Pudong Bank also reduced its share sale by 40 percent to $362 million, saying its prospectus gave the wrong figure.

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

Pharmacist Donald Tierney displays Paxil in his drugstore in Wilmette, Ill., yesterday. A federal judge has upheld one of GlaxoSmithKline's patents for the drug, helping the world's second-biggest drugmaker fend off competitors to the $3 billion-a-year antidepressant.