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U.S. HOUSING STARTS EDGE HIGHER IN JANUARY

Construction of new homes and apartments rose in January to the highest level in 16 years as low mortgage rates continued to power a housing boom, the government reported last week.

The Commerce Department said that work started on 1.850 million units at a seasonably adjusted annual rate in January, up 0.2 percent from 1.847 million units in December.

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The gain reflected the fact that low mortgage rates, which fueled record sales of both new and existing homes in 2002, remained at enticing levels in January. Freddie Mac reported that the nationwide average for 30-year mortgages stood at 5.86 percent last week, only a bit higher than the 40-year low of 5.85 percent set in the first week of January.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress last week that he believed the country would record stronger growth in coming months once the uncertainties surrounding a possible war in Iraq fade away. For that reason, he said it was premature to consider another round of tax cuts to boost consumer demand, dealing a blow to President Bush's efforts to get Congress to enact $1.3 trillion in new tax cuts.

For January, the government said that construction was begun on 1.51 million single-family homes, a gain of 2.1 percent from the December level of 1.48 million units. Strength in this area offset a drop in construction of apartments, which fell by 8.7 percent to an annual rate of 303,000 units.

For all of 2002, housing starts totaled 1.71 million units, up 6.4 percent from 1.60 million units started in 2001. Last year marked the best year for housing construction since 1986.

By region of the country, housing starts posted the biggest gain in the West in January, an increase of 9.9 percent to an annual rate of 522,000 units. Housing construction was also up in the South, rising 3.8 percent to an annual rate of 839,000 units in January.

The other two regions of the country suffered declines in housing starts in January. The biggest drop was in the Northeast, where housing starts fell by 16.7 percent to an annual rate of 135,000 units, a decrease that was attributed in part to bad weather conditions.

NEW HOPE FOR COMBATING FIRE ANTS?

The USDA's Agricultural Research Service fire ant research team in Florida may have discovered a new, environmentally friendly method for controlling fire ants in the southern United States, according to the February issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

In the article, “Update: Hot on the Trail of Fire Ants,” researchers report the potential success of viruses and other biological controls against the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). These include a parasitic ant from Argentina and Brazil, Solenopsis daguerrei, and a pathogen, Thelohania solenopsae.

According to the ARS, the parasitic ant works to decrease fire-ant colony size. “Studies found that mound densities were reduced by 33 percent in fire-ant colonies with the parasitic ant, and the number of fire-ant queens was reduced by 47 percent in parasitized colonies,” according to the article.

The pathogen (Thelohania solenopsae) is a single-cell protozoan discovered by U.S. scientists in 1996 that works to reduce the fire-ant queen's weight, causing her to lay fewer eggs.

UNEMPLOYMENT SEES SLIGHT INCREASE

Monthly national figures published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show unemployment either rose or stayed the same in all regions except for the Midwest in December 2002.

The Northeast increased from 5.5 percent in November to 5.7 percent in December. The regions of New England and Middle Atlantic each experienced increases from 4.7 to 4.9 percent and 5.8 to 6.0 percent, respectively. Figures for the South stayed the same at 5.4 percent. Midwest figures dropped from 5.3 to 5.2 percent.

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