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Construction starts for new homes soared in January to their highest level in more than a decade, the US Commerce Department said in a report suggesting the American economy has lost none of its steam as it entered the new year. Total starts jumped 3.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.804 million, following an upwardly revised 5.1 percent rise to 1.738 million in December. The January rate was the highest since 1.833 million recorded in December 1986.

Calling Asia's deep financial crisis "purely transitional," the sixth-largest US oil company, Conoco, announced plans to invest $2 billion in the troubled region over the next five years. Conoco's chief executive said most of the money would go to existing oil and natural-gas exploration or production. But $100 million of the total will be spent in Thailand, where a Conoco subsidiary operates 100 service stations, many of which include convenience stores. One hundred more are planned by 2002.

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