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Despite awkward timing, General Motors announced it is recalling 1.8 million cars from the 1997-2001 model years because of a potential defect in the ignition system and steering column that can lead to overheating, melted components, and even fire. The company said Friday that 80 such incidents have been reported and that the models involved were sold in the US and Canada. The recall affects certain Chevrolet Cavaliers, Pontiac Sunfires and Grand Ams, Buick Skylarks, and Oldsmobile Achievas. Most of those are no longer in production. GM chairman Rick Wagoner said the recall would have minimal effect on the company's bottom line. But industry analysts noted that it was announced as the Chicago Motor Show, North America's largest, was opening and as the giant auto-maker is conducting an intensive marketing campaign to try to persuade consumers of the quality of its vehicles.

Cigna Corp. said it expects to cut almost 3,000 jobs and scale back its quarterly dividend to shareholders as part of a new effort to reduce operating costs this year. The goal: $300 million. The dividend per share, payable in April, will drop from 33 cents to 2.5 cents, the company announced Friday. The health-insurance carrier reported an 11 percent drop in membership in group plans between December 2002 and last December and said its revenue fell from $19.3 billion to $18.8 billion.

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Signs pointed to a possible bidding war for Providian Financial Corp., one of the nation's leading issuers of credit cards, according to the Financial Times. The newspaper said two of Britain's top financial-services companies, Barclays and Lloyds TSB, have held "exploratory" discussions with San Francisco-based Providian and that the latter also was talking with unidentified potential US bidders. Spokesmen for Providian, Barclays, and Lloyds declined to comment on the report. Barclays, Britain's third-largest bank, bought Providian's credit-card business in the United Kingdom last year.


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