Service sector contraction slows

The Institute for Supply Management said Thursday that the nation's service sector -- which includes retailers, the hotel business, insurance and various social services -- contracted in March, but not as much as the month before. Still, worries deepened about soaring prices for raw materials. The institute, a trade group of purchasing executives, said its non- manufacturing index registered 49.6 last month, compared with 49.3 in February. A reading below 50 indicates contraction, while a reading above 50 indicates growth. It's the third consecutive month of contraction.

Expected shortage pushes corn to record $6

Corn prices jumped to a record $6 a bushel Thursday, driven up by an expected supply shortage that will only add to Americans' growing grocery bills and further squeeze struggling ethanol producers. Corn prices have shot up nearly 30 percent this year amid dwindling stockpiles and surging demand for the grain used to feed livestock and make alternative fuels including ethanol. Prices are poised to go even higher after the federal government this week predicted that American farmers -- the world's biggest corn producers -- will plant much less corn in 2008 than they did last spring. Corn for the May contract rose 4.25 cents to settle at $6 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade, after earlier rising to $6.02 1/2 a bushel -- a new high.

Alitalia still flying, but future uncertain

Alitalia will keep flying -- for now. But the future of Italy's flagship carrier was uncertain after Air France-KLM broke off talks with unions over demands it said would prevent the airline from quickly making the company profitable again. Alitalia said it will tell the government by next Tuesday whether it can survive. Unions signaled on Thursday that they were willing to reopen talks, but there was silence from Air France-KLM. Alitalia's board said after an emergency meeting that it "continues to consider the offer suitable for assuring Alitalia's return to profitability."

Missed loan payments jumped at end of 2007

The number of consumers who fell behind on payments for auto, home equity and credit card loans spiked late last year to the highest level in 15 years, according to an American Bankers Association survey released Thursday. Consumers missed payments by at least 30 days on 2.65 percent of loans in the fourth quarter -- up from 2.44 percent the previous quarter. Vehicle loans, which make up two-thirds of consumer installment loans, fueled much of the increase: Borrowers were at least 30 days late on 3.13 percent of loans from car dealerships and on 1.9 percent of auto loans made by banks. "Stress in the housing market still dominates the story, but it's a broader tale of an overall weak economy," James Chessen, chief economist for the bankers' association, said in a prepared statement.