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U.S. consumers get more confidence

NEW YORK — An index of consumer sentiment rose to its highest in six months in early December in the latest sign that the U.S. economy’s health is slowly improving.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary December reading on consumer confidence on Friday climbed for a fourth consecutive month to 67.7 from 64.1 in November.

“U.S. consumers appear to be ending the year in a better mood,” said Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics.

Improved confidence could lead Americans to spend more readily, which would add to recent momentum gained from strong retail sales and factory output.

U.S. trade deficit narrows in October

WASHINGTON — The U.S. trade deficit narrowed in October to its lowest point of the year after Americans bought fewer foreign cars and imported less oil.

The shrinking trade gap boosted growth over the summer and may do so again in the final three months of the year. But economists worry the trend could reverse next year, especially if Europe’s debt crisis worsens.

The Commerce Department said Friday that the trade deficit shrank 1.6 percent to $43.5 billion. It was the fourth consecutive monthly decline.

Agency drops case against Boeing

WASHINGTON — The National Labor Relations Board dropped a much-criticized action against Boeing Co., a move praised by Republicans as overdue but one that deprives the GOP of a line of attack against the Obama administration in the 2012 campaign.

Republican presidential contenders and business groups had seized upon the Boeing controversy as part of an effort to pin the sluggish economy on the president, contending that the NLRB’s complaint could cost South Carolina hard-won manufacturing jobs.

The NLRB filed a complaint against Boeing in March, alleging the aerospace company decided to put a nonunion production line in Charleston, S.C., in retaliation against union workers in Washington state for past strikes.

The machinists union entered into a new four-year contract extension with Boeing this week and, as part of the deal, agreed to withdraw its unfair labor practices charge against the company. That led the NLRB to announce Friday it had dropped the case.

Corn supply will keep prices high

ST. LOUIS — The U.S. government barely changed its estimate for next year’s corn surplus, which is expected to stay small and keep high food prices high.

The Department of Agriculture estimated Friday that farmers will have 848 million bushels of corn on hand at the end of next summer. That’s up less than 1 percent from last month’s forecast.

Higher corn prices have pushed overall food inflation up this year. The USDA expects food prices to have increased 4.5 percent in 2011. They estimate prices will rise as much as 3.5 percent next year.

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