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Business Highlights

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Consumer confidence at 3-year high on job optimism

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Americans are feeling more chipper about the economy than they have in three years.

The Consumer Confidence Index rose to 70.4 this month, up from 64.8 in January, as Americans expressed more optimism about their income prospects and the direction the economy is headed, a private research group reported Tuesday.

It's the strongest reading since the early days of the most severe recession the U.S. has seen since the 1930s.

A robust stock market and falling unemployment are lifting Americans' spirits in spite of rising food and energy prices and a still-weak housing sector. In addition, a cut to the Social Security tax meant Americans started seeing more money in their paychecks in January, which may be boosting consumer spending.

Retailers including Macy's Inc., Home Depot Inc. and VF Corp., maker of Lee jeans and Vans shoes, reported better-than-expected earnings Tuesday. Home Depot posted its first annual revenue increase since before the housing crash in 2006, while Macy's, the country's second-largest department store chain, saw sales at stores open at least a year climb 4.3 percent.

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Home prices plummet in most big US cities

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Home prices are hitting new depths in most major U.S. cities and are expected to fall further over the next six months.

In a majority of metro areas tracked by Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller, prices have fallen to their lowest points since the housing bubble burst.

High unemployment, stricter lending rules and fears that prices will continue to fall are among the reasons why few people are buying homes. A rising number of foreclosures are also weighing down prices. And as more people get stuck in depreciating homes, housing could slow the economy.

Across the country, the housing industry is recovering unevenly. Risky lending was more widespread in places like Florida, Arizona and Nevada, leading to more foreclosures and sharper price declines.

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