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National | Strong car sales and weak home sales may trade places next year, and UMass gets a piece of the cloning business

Issue: "Finding the Best in the Worst," Dec. 15, 2001

SALES BOOM BACKFIRE?
New-vehicle sales hit an all-time high in 2000 with 17.4 million sold, topping the previous high of 16.9 million set in 1999. Now, post-9/11 incentive programs such as zero-interest financing have put the automotive industry on track to log its second-best sales year in history. But observers worry that the recent sales boom may backfire in early 2002 if it turns out that late-2001 buyers included those who had originally intended to purchase new cars after the holidays. The Big Three auto makers already are trying to cull out such buyers, trimming zero-interest loan terms from 60 to 36 months. DEEP BREATHING
Seeming to defy the general economic drag, sales of existing homes rose 5.5 percent in October, leading media outlets to print news of a housing market "recovery." But David Lereah, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said higher October numbers may reflect buyers who postponed September purchases following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. November statistics haven't yet been made public, but real-estate agents in some high-cost areas reported a slowdown last month. Denver realtors reported both a decrease in buyers and an increase in homes on the market. San Diego realtor Jeff Eldridge also has seen a significant drop in business. Three months ago, he had more buyers than he could find houses to sell them. Now, it seems "most people who were thinking of buying have already bought," he said. "The rest are just ... waiting to see what the market's going to do." A review of the Federal Reserve's "beige book" might provide clues. The "book," which contains economic data gathered from the Fed's 12 regional districts through Nov. 19, showed that residential and commercial real-estate activity had stepped up in some regions including Atlanta and New York. But the same indicators fell, along with construction, in areas surrounding San Francisco, Kansas City, and Chicago. The Fed also reported an increase in layoffs, cutbacks, and plant closings across several districts. Mr. Eldridge said the increase in layoffs hurts his business: "People who otherwise would qualify to buy homes now can't because they're out of work." Mr. Eldridge anticipates the real-estate slowdown to continue through the holidays, but expects to be busy again in early 2002. "If [realtors] can just stop complaining long enough to take a deep breath," he said, "we might actually enjoy the break we're getting now." MONEY OVER LIFE
The University of Massachusetts (UMass) didn't simply advance the science of cloning-it may also make a lot of money on the deal. Under the terms of a 1998 agreement with Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), the biotech firm now at the nucleus of the human-cloning controversy, UMass will earn 4.5 percent of the company's net sales, according to a Boston Globe report. ACT founder James Robl, a former UMass professor, experimented with the genetic alteration of animals while employed at the state university during the 1990s. When Mr. Robl decided to go commercial in 1994-UMass was at the time experimenting with transferring successful research to the private sector-he agreed to pay the university about $500,000 in flat licensing fees. In 1998, UMass renegotiated the ACT deal to include ongoing royalty payments. ACT's announcement late last month that it had begun cloning human embryos for the purpose of killing them to harvest their stem cells unleashed a storm of criticism from President Bush, many lawmakers, and pro-life groups ("Monstrous, Inc.," Dec. 8). But one conservative keeping mum is UMass president William M. Bulger, a former Massachusetts state senator known as a staunch cultural conservative, abortion foe, and, according to his 1996 autobiography, standard-bearer for the "enduring values of Judeo-Christian culture." On the value of human embryonic life, though, Mr. Bulger seems to be lowering his pro-life flag: He is "not greatly galvanized by these latest developments," UMass spokesman Robert Connolly told reporters. "At this point, we stand on the sidelines and hope [ACT uses cloning] in a legally responsible fashion."

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