U.S. retailers reported disappointing March sales. Unseasonably cold weather curtailed demand for spring clothes, and department stores fared the worst, announcing declines in same-store sales, or sales from stores open at least a year, the industry's standard indicator. The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi said its tally of 79 stores for March was down 0.2 percent from a year earlier. March 2002 sales, by comparison, were up 6.4 percent compared with the year before. The bank said a key factor depressing March sales was the timing of Easter, which falls on April 20. Easter fell on March 31 last year.

Mortgage Rates Up Slightly

Mortgage rates rose this week to about the average for this year, Freddie Mac said. The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage increased to 5.85 percent in the week ending today, from 5.79 percent. That compares with a record-low 5.61 percent in mid-March and an average of 5.84 percent since the start of this year.

MORE NEWS

The U.S. trade deficit fell 2.2 percent in February, to $40.3 billion, reflecting reduced U.S. demand for foreign-made goods, especially computers, machinery, toys and jewelry. Exports edged up, the Commerce Department reported. But even with the improvement, February's gap was the third-biggest monthly deficit on record.

McDonald's reported lower same-store sales for the 13th consecutive month. Worldwide sales at restaurants open at least 13 months dropped 3.7 percent compared with March 2002. The decline was 1.2 percent in the United States and 5.4 percent in Europe, its two biggest markets, and 9.9 percent for its Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa region.

Halliburton's contract to clean up damage to Iraq's oil fields may be worth as much as $7 billion in revenue, the company and the Army Corps of Engineers said. KBR, formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of the Houston-based company, was chosen by the Pentagon last month to fight fires and assess damage and oil spills in Iraq in anticipation that the oil fields would be sabotaged. The contract authorizes paying a maximum of $7 billion over two years.

The Federal Reserve within weeks will issue final rules that will enable regulators to ban an accountant or firm from auditing banks because of shoddy work, Fed Governor Susan Bies said in a speech in Nashville. "We've had this authority since 1991, but we've never felt we needed to write regulation because we didn't think we'd have to use it," Bies said. "Now we're convinced we need to do something."

US Airways' rejection of its lease at Pittsburgh International Airport will not be challenged in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The Allegheny County Airport Authority threatened this week to challenge US Airways when the Arlington-based airline said it required $155 million in facility improvements and savings shortly before emerging from bankruptcy. But the authority's lawyer said that won't happen.

Barry Diller's USA Interactive agreed to buy the 32 percent of Hotels.com that it doesn't already own for about $1.1 billion in stock, the final step in Diller's plan to buy USA's publicly traded units. Hotels.com sells discounted hotel rooms on the Internet.

American Express said it was sued in California by cardholders alleging that it hid fees on purchases made outside the United States. The suit was filed after Visa International and MasterCard International lost a court judgment on the same issue. American Express said the class-action suit seeks unspecified damages and an injunction that would block it from continuing to assess the fees.

Wal-Mart Stores suspended sales of toy guns in New York after the state sued, accusing the retailer of selling toys that lack required safety markings to distinguish them from real weapons.

An eBay user in Massachusetts was sentenced to 57 months in prison for taking $880,000 from people who bid on computers and didn't get them. A federal judge also ordered Teresa Smith to repay the bidders.

INTERNATIONAL

Nokia plans to lay off 1,800 people at its network unit, the fourth round of cuts since August, to stem losses as demand slumps for base stations and switching equipment. The reductions, about 10 percent of the unit's workforce, will bring the total jobs eliminated since markets peaked to 9,000.

RECALLS

Hasbro recalled 155,000 Easy-Bake Bake 'N Design cookie mixes because they contain ingredients that may cause serious allergy reactions. The $6.99 cookie mix, sold in major U.S. toy stores and discounters since November 2001, contains milk proteins and may also include peanuts. Neither is declared on the product label, Hasbro said. No other Easy-Bake products or mixes are affected by the recall.

EARNINGS

Boeing said its first-quarter earnings will be reduced by $994 million, mostly because of an accounting charge to reflect the sharply declining value of companies it acquired in the past seven years. Boeing expects to report the first-quarter results April 23.

SunTrust Banks said its first-quarter profit rose 7.5 percent from a year earlier, when earnings were weighed down by a $39.8 million merger-related charge and a higher level of bad loans. Profit in the most recent quarter was $327.8 million, up from $304.9 million in the previous first quarter.

Dow Jones said its first-quarter profit fell 48 percent, to $66.9 million, because the tough advertising market has been weakened further by the war in Iraq. The publisher of the Wall Street Journal and Barron's also warned that second-quarter earnings will be down sharply if the effects of the war persist. Revenue fell 9 percent, to $358.2 million.

E.W. Scripps, owner of the Cincinnati Post and the Food Network, said first-quarter profit rose 32 percent from the period last year, to $52.7 million, because of increased advertising on its home-related cable television networks. Sales rose 29 percent, to $445.2 million.

Pier 1 Imports said its fiscal fourth-quarter earnings rose 10 percent, to $54 million, because it opened more stores and sold more holiday items. Sales in the quarter ended March 1 rose 8.9 percent, to $521 million.

Rite Aid reported a $7 million profit for the fourth quarter but a loss of 2 cents per share because of the $15.3 million cost of preferred stock dividends. In the same quarter last year, the drugstore chain lost $257.9 million. Rite Aid also said it promoted Mary F. Sammons to chief executive from chief operating officer. Robert G. Miller, the chief executive who oversaw Rite Aid's restatement of finances after an accounting scandal under previous management, will remain chairman.

Tenet Healthcare posted its first quarterly loss in almost four years after writing down the value of hospitals and getting lower payments from Medicare. The loss in the company's fiscal third quarter, ended Feb. 28, was $55 million, compared with a profit of $280 million a year earlier. Revenue rose 5.8 percent, to $3.69 billion.

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

A woman wears a mask to protect herself from severe acute respiratory syndrome in Hong Kong yesterday. Retail sales in Hong Kong have fallen 50 percent since the virus appeared last month.