Business & Finance

Home Depot Inc., the nation's largest home improvement store chain, said Tuesday it is closing 15 of its 54 EXPO Design Center stores that are not meeting the company's "strategic objectives." Home Depot, which is based in Atlanta, also plans to convert five other EXPO stores to regular big-box stores. Roughly 2,000 EXPO employees could be affected by the closures and conversions, though the company's goal is that there not be any net job losses.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s Georgetown, Ky., plant, its largest in North America, will begin producing a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the popular Camry model by the second half of 2006, the company announced Tuesday. The decision marks the Japanese automaker's first commitment to build a hybrid vehicle in North America. Hybrid cars get better mileage than regular gasoline-powered cars because they switch between a gasoline engine and an electric motor. Kentucky passed tax legislation this year allowing carmakers to recover some costs of building hybrids, a move Toyota officials cited in announcing their decision. California and Canada also made a push to land the project. Employment will increase by fewer than 100 at the Georgetown plant, which employs about 7,000 workers.

German utility company E.On said Tuesday it had sold its Viterra real estate unit to Terra Firma Capital Partners, a British private equity firm, for about $5 billion, with an additional $3.8 billion in debt and provisions. According to The Wall Street Journal, E.On had long planned to sell the unit, which is Germany's biggest residential property owner with close to 155,000 apartments.

The Bush administration, in its hardest stance yet, warned China on Tuesday that it likely will be accused of manipulating its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage over the United States - unless Beijing acts swiftly to overhaul its currency system. The Treasury Department issued the warning as part of its twice-a-year report to Congress. However, it stopped short of finding that China, or any other major US trading partner, was engaging in unfair currency practices. The White House has been prodding China to stop linking its currency, the yuan, to the US dollar. Manufacturers and other critics contend that China's currency system puts American companies at a big competitive disadvantage and has contributed to the loss of US factory jobs.

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