SBC Communications, the nation's second-biggest local-telephone company, is in talks to buy the DirecTV satellite-television business from General Motors, people familiar with the matter said. SBC may be in competition with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and John Malone's Liberty Media for DirecTV, which could drive up the price. The companies wouldn't comment. EchoStar Communications abandoned its $27 billion deal to buy DirecTV in December after opposition by regulators.

Bethlehem Wants to Cut Off Retirees

Bethlehem Steel said it would seek to eliminate health and life insurance benefits for about 95,000 retired workers and their dependents as of March 31, telling the bankruptcy court overseeing its reorganization that it can no longer afford it. The request was immediately condemned as "morally callous" by the United Steelworkers of America, which said it would oppose terminating the benefits. Bethlehem Steel seeks to end the program as part of its move to accept a purchase offer by Cleveland-based International Steel Group.

MORE NEWS

Consumer borrowing rose by just 3.3 percent last year, the slowest pace in a decade, the Federal Reserve reported. The rise in credit card and other revolving debt was the smallest increase since the Fed began keeping records in 1968. Demand for nonrevolving credit, which includes loans for new cars and vacations, rose by 4.5 percent in 2002, down from a 8.3 percent increase in 2001 and the smallest annual gain since 1997.

Robert McCann, the head of research at Merrill Lynch, resigned after 21 years at the world's biggest securities firm. McCann is the fifth top executive in the past two months to announce his intention to leave as CEO Stanley O'Neal presses the firm to cut costs. McCann took over the division in October 2001, six months before New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced his probe into claims that securities firms issued biased research to win investment-banking business.

AK Steel said it will sell steel to General Motors while it attempts to resolve a legal dispute over how much it should be paid. AK Steel, the biggest maker of automotive steel, said in a Dec. 17 court filing that GM refused to pay for additional inspections and testing the automaker had requested. Based on the companies' contract, GM is supposed to pay for any difference in price from a change in quality-control methods. But a GM spokeswoman said the company won't "pay a premium to AK Steel . . . to maintain the quality standard their contract requires."

Former Kmart chief executive Charles Conaway asked a bankruptcy judge to let Kmart's insurance pay his legal bills. Conaway said in a court filing that he is facing lawsuits by shareholders and employees, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and "other threatened claims." An internal Kmart review concluded Conaway, who led the company from May 2000 through last March, may face legal claims related to allegations of wrongdoing.

Several major news publishers, including The Washington Post Co., settled a dispute over an Internet advertising practice they had deemed parasitical: unauthorized, third-party ads that pop up on their Web sites. Terms are confidential, said Terence Ross, the lead attorney for the publishers. The parent companies of the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal and the digital arms of Knight Ridder and Conde Nast also participated in the lawsuit against Gator Corp. U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton in Alexandria had granted a preliminary injunction ordering Gator to stop delivering pop-up ads at the sites run by those companies.

Black policyholders who accused MetLife of charging them higher premiums for burial insurance than whites decades ago will receive as little as $52 million of the $250 million the company will spend to settle their lawsuit. Typical payments will be between $60 and $70, lawyers said. Plaintiffs' lawyers will get $24 million if a judge approves the deal. MetLife will incur tens of millions of dollars in costs notifying policyholders entitled to payments, plus $100 million for the company's own legal and administrative costs.

INTERNATIONAL

Japanese banks reduced their bad debts by $25.8 billion, or 7.2 percent of their total, in the six months that ended in September, according to Japan's Financial Services Agency. Bad debt held by Japan's 132 major banks stood at $334 billion as of Sept. 30, the agency said. Economists say Japan won't recover from more than a decade of stagnation until its banks clear the debt, left from the collapse of the speculative bubble of the late 1980s.

Ecuador won backing from the International Monetary Fund's management for a loan package that will open the way for the Andean nation to get a total of $500 million in aid from government-backed lenders. The country's new government, which took office Jan. 15, had warned that without IMF aid it would struggle to meet budget commitments this year, including $2.1 billion needed to repay debt.

EARNINGS

Cigna reported that fourth-quarter net income fell 75 percent, to $47 million, from the same period last year due to a big charge that included costs of a legal settlement and restructuring. Revenue fell 2 percent, to $4.7 billion.

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