Work & Money briefs

Economists attribute February drop to prewar jitters

Keeping Track: durable-goods orders

Orders to US factories for big-ticket goods fell by 1.2 percent in February, a sign of the struggles facing the nation's hard-hit manufacturing sector.

The decline erased part of the 1.9 percent gain in orders registered in January, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.

Private economists predicted that orders for durable goods, products expected to last at least three years, would fall somewhat as firms put off buying new equipment in the face of war.

Soldiers with college loans, stand at ease

Battling sandstorms in the Iraqi desert or flying helicopters over Baghdad doesn't leave much time for thinking about paying monthly bills.

But in case active-duty military personnel or their family members have been worrying about looming student-loan repayments, the US Department of Education offered a reminder last week that borrowers' obligations go into a kind of suspended animation during deployment.

In most situations, federal-loan payments can be deferred until a tour of duty is complete. And arrangements can be made by a relative or other designated representative.

For some loans, borrowers will be excused from paying interest for the period in which they are mobilized. In addition, collections on past-due payments will be postponed until 30 days after the borrower returns from military service.

The Education Department also urged colleges to give refunds to students who had to leave school for military service, and to make plans to help them resume their studies when they return.

Lenders should automatically contact borrowers about some of these provisions.

For more information, contact the school, the lender, the federal government (800-4FED-AID), or American Student Assistance (800-999-9080).

Deadline today for campaign-fund reports

The focus on war has made campaign fundraising tricky in recent days. No 2004 candidate wants to appear to have his or her priorities mixed up.

But candidates have been upping their appeals for cash. Today marks the end of the first quarter of fundraising for next year's election, and the deadline for candidates to file their first reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The totals cited in the first fundraising reports will offer an early sign of each candidate's strength. That has added urgency to appeals, which, according to the Associated Press, have also been sensitively couched.

Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt, for example, coupled an appeal for cash with prayers for the US military. "I need to be at the top of that list," the Missouri congressman wrote, imploring donors to give $50 or more.

Nor are presidential hopefuls the only ones pressing ahead with fundraising during the war. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee played host to a $2,500-per-ticket dinner Tuesday night in Washington. The National Republican Senatorial Committee held a Washington dinner to which individuals who had contributed $2,000 to $5,000 per year were invited.

Reports on funds raised are available at www.fec.gov. Also see www.opensecrets.org.

Feeling shaky about job security ...

American workers appear increasingly uncertain about keeping their jobs or finding comparable work if they are laid off. And with the global economy sagging, they are not alone.

A career-confidence survey of 1,000 working Americans, released last week by Right Management Consultants, showed 1 in 4 was concerned about losing his or her job in the coming year. In December, a survey found 1 in 5 felt that way.

Seventy-nine percent expect unemployment to rise in 2003, up from 77 percent. And 83 percent said it would be hard to find similar-paying work after a layoff. On that front, concern was higher in four of the other 16 countries in which workers were polled and nearly as high in two:

• Germany - 94.7 percent
• Italy - 88.7 percent
• Switzerland - 86.6 percent
• Hong Kong - 85.4 percent
• France - 81.2 percent
• Ireland - 79.9 percent

"The stalled economy, flat business prospects, and months of uncertainty about the prospects of war are taking their toll," said Richard J. Pinola, Right's chairman and chief executive officer.

... and also about the economy at large

A stock market whipsawed last week by Iraq war developments fueled debate about whether a rally could emerge and lead the economy upward. Other economic news was bleak, including orders for durable goods (chart, above left) and an 8.1 percent decline in new-home sales.

How do small investors view the big picture? According to a Gallup poll released last week (but conducted just before war got under way), confidence in the United States and Europe had fallen to new lows - last year at this time, 27 percent of active US investors polled thought it was not a good time to invest more. In the new poll, that number had risen to 56 percent.

The segment of investors polled in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain who said no to new investments rose from 50 to 67 percent.

Also: 61 percent of US investors believed the US economy had not hit bottom; 40 percent thought war would have a positive effect on the economy; 51 percent said war would have a negative effect.

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