In other items: More jobs, jobless for Oregon in February; fortunes improve for silver producer; bid made for Asian cigarette company; top insurer's CEO retires amid inquiries; no Ebbers verdict yet; Ascential buyout worth $1.1 billion; fuel costs bump up budget air fares, too; AutoZone executive named as new Office Depot CEO; and trade-libel alleged...

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Microsoft, which runs the nation’s third-largest Internet search engine, plans to start a service where clients will pay to be listed alongside its MSN search results, people familiar with the plans said.

The service will be similar to programs from Google and Yahoo! Microsoft will announce a pilot program tomorrow, said the people, who asked not to be identified.

These services auction off placement in Web search results to companies with related products.

Microsoft spokeswoman Karen Redetzki declined to comment.

Labor market

More jobs, jobless for Oregon in February

Despite strong job gains in February that pushed Oregon’s employment to a record level, the state’s jobless rate edged up slightly in February to 6.6 percent from a revised January figure of 6.3 percent.

Employment reached a peak of nearly 1.87 million jobs last month, according to Oregon Employment Department figures released yesterday.

The state added 10,100 jobs in February following a revised gain of 5,100 in January.

The nation’s unemployment rate also nudged up slightly, to 5.4 percent in February from 5.2 percent in January.

Washington releases its February jobs numbers today. The state’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.5 percent in January from 5.9 percent in December.

Coeur d’Alene Mines

Fortunes improve for silver producer

Coeur d’Alene Mines, the biggest U.S. silver producer, reported its first quarterly profit in more than three years because of higher prices and tax benefits.

Profit was $13 million, or 5 cents a share, including $10.4 million in tax benefits, the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, company said yesterday. A year earlier, the restated net loss was $12.9 million, or 6 cents. Revenue climbed 48 percent to $46.1 million.

The company’s average silver price rose 38 percent to $7.08 an ounce in the fourth quarter from a year earlier.

Philip Morris

Bid made for Asian cigarette company

Philip Morris International has made a $5 billion offer for Indonesia’s third-largest cigarette producer, a move that would fatten its share of the country’s fast-growing tobacco market while health concerns put a squeeze on smoking elsewhere in the world.

The company, a unit of Altria Group and maker of best-selling Marlboro cigarettes, said late Sunday that it agreed to buy a 40 percent stake in PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna from its principal shareholders for a total of $2 billion in cash.

Philip Morris’ bid highlights recent efforts to expand its presence overseas as government bans and increased health awareness have curbed tobacco use in the United States and Europe.

“The market in the United States is not growing at the same rate it used to be. There are beginning to be smoking bans in Western Europe, too,” said Argus Research’s Erin Smith. “Some of the less-developed countries don’t have that threat.”


Top insurer’s CEO retires amid inquiries

American International Group’s Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who has run the world’s largest insurer for almost four decades, retired as chief executive amid probes of potential earnings manipulation and bid-rigging.

Greenberg, 79, will be replaced by Co-Chief Operating Officer Martin Sullivan and will stay on as nonexecutive chairman, New York-based AIG said in a statement late yesterday. Chief Financial Officer Howard Smith has taken leave and was replaced by Treasurer Steven Bensinger.

“The board has concluded it is now in the best interest of AIG’s shareholders, customers and employees to turn to a new generation of leadership,” Frank Zarb, chairman of the executive committee of the board, said in a statement.

Greenberg is the most prominent executive to step down since New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer touched off an investigation of fraud in the insurance industry last October. Spitzer and the Securities and Exchange Commission are probing a 4-year-old reinsurance transaction between AIG and Berkshire Hathaway’s General Reinsurance unit that may have helped AIG smooth earnings, according to people familiar with the matter.


Ascential buyout worth $1.1 billion

IBM is buying Ascential Software, which makes software that helps businesses manage data, for $1.1 billion in cash. Ascential shares rose more than 16 percent in early trading.

IBM said yesterday the acquisition addresses a key customer challenge — applying technology to respond more quickly to changing market conditions.

Ascential is a “data integration” company, offering businesses software that integrates data from disparate sources. For instance, IBM said that retailers use Ascential’s software to gather, standardize and structure sales information from multiple sources, such as the Internet, catalogs and stores, and make rapid inventory and pricing adjustments in response to changing market demands.


Fuel costs bump up budget air fares, too

The nation’s discount airlines are raising fares as they strain against the same high fuel prices and intense competition that have plagued larger rivals.

Late yesterday, JetBlue Airways, based in New York City, raised fares as much as $5 each way on most tickets, said spokesman Todd Burke. On Sunday, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines raised prices from $1 to $3 each way on most tickets.

Both carriers said high fuel costs were a major factor in their decisions. Oil has traded above $50 a barrel in recent weeks.

“We’re in a difficult environment,” said JetBlue spokesman Todd Burke.

Those price increases followed moves by discount carriers AirTran Airways, ATA Airlines and Independence Air, which matched a broad price increase implemented by the major hub carriers last week.

The increases by JetBlue and Southwest came days after the major hub carriers raised prices by $10 each way on routes longer than 1,000 miles, and by $5 each way on shorter trips. Unlike Southwest, American and other major airlines, including United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have limited protection from fuel prices.

Office Depot

AutoZone executive named as new CEO

Office Depot, the nation’s second-largest office supply retailer, hired a former auto-parts executive yesterday to be its new chairman and chief executive officer, hoping to keep the momentum gained since his predecessor’s departure.

Steve Odland, CEO and chairman of AutoZone since January 2001, replaces Bruce Nelson, who was pressured to resign in October after four years leading Office Depot.

Charles Schwab Corp.

Trade-libel alleged against Waterhouse

Discount brokerage pioneer Charles Schwab Corp. sued the TD Waterhouse yesterday, alleging its rival’s advertisements falsely labeled Schwab as a high-priced firm with inferior service.

The trade-libel complaint filed in California state court underscores Schwab’s determination to reclaim its reputation as a bargain brokerage.

After being undercut by smaller rivals for years, San Francisco-based Schwab has lowered its trading commissions twice in the last nine months and waived some of the recent account fees that it rolled out in recent years to offset a deep financial slump.

With the changes, some of New York-based Waterhouse’s prices are now higher than Schwab’s. For instance, a Schwab customer with $55,000 in his accounts would pay $12.95 for an online trade, compared with $17.95 for a Waterhouse customer with the same amount of money.

TD Waterhouse said yesterday that it stands by its ads.

Compiled from Bloomberg News, The Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers