2 NEW YORK (AP) _ Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and New England Mutual Life Insurance Co. agreed to merge in a rare consolidation of the tradition-steeped life insurance industry.

___

NEW YORK (AP) _ The value of the dollar has advanced in a breathtaking fashion in the past few weeks, a trend that could yield subtle but important economic benefits for the United States and its key trading partners.

Professional money brokers in the $1 trillion-a-day foreign exchange market, where the dollar had been battered for much of the year, now say the currency is likely to keep rising for awhile. ``The primary motivator in the market is a herd mentality, and it takes only a few leaders to get the herd moving,'' Jerry Egan, managing director of foreign exchange at MTB Bank in New York, said Wednesday.

___

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Creative Artists Agency has named a transition team to run the powerful talent agency until departing leaders Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer can be replaced.

The team announced Wednesday includes top agents Rick Nicita and Jack Rapke, along with chief consulting strategist Sandy Climan, but excludes Bill Haber, the last of the company's four founders.

___

NEW YORK (AP) _ The company responsible for G.I. Joe, Monopoly and Playskool products is forming a venture to create toys and games in collaboration with Hollywood's new DreamWorks entertainment combine.

Hasbro Inc. will help create products ranging from dolls to board games based on the movies and TV shows expected from DreamWorks SKG headed by entertainment moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. The companies said Wednesday they will each own half of the new venture, which will develop a line of products called DreamWorks Toys.

___

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Housing starts posted a fourth straight gain in July _ the biggest in 16 months, providing new evidence that low mortgage rates have helped rouse the industry from its winter lethargy.

Until Wednesday, construction of new homes and apartments was believed to have declined every month this year except for a small advance in April. But the Commerce Department said housing starts increased throughout the second quarter and started the third with a 6.7 percent gain, the biggest since a 14 percent surge in March 1994.

___

NEW YORK (AP) _ A major credit-rating agency lowered its opinion of Salomon Inc., citing a big quarterly loss at the Wall Street firm and problems in retaining top investment bankers and other staff.

Standard & Poor's Ratings Group on Wednesday downgraded $15 billion in long-term Salomon debt to a low investment grade and cut the investment firm's preferred stock to ``junk'' status.

___

DETROIT (AP) _ Talks involving striking unions and Detroit's two daily newspapers resumed with a federal mediator, only the second time the two sides had met since the strike began a month ago.

The closed talks Wednesday were conducted by the government's top labor negotiator, John Calhoun Wells. The two sides declined to discuss proposals. Tim Kelleher, lead negotiator for Detroit Newspapers, said management was waiting to see the mediator's agenda.

___

BOSTON (AP) _ Fidelity Investments has transferred voting control of the mutual fund company's parent to 50 top employees, in one of the largest such transfers in corporate history.

The voting interest of FMR Corp. chairman Edward Johnson III and his family was cut to 49 percent. The family owned 80 percent of FMR as recently as April, according to a Fidelity fund proxy statement.

___

NEW YORK (AP) _ Investor Sam Zell and a group including the Walt Disney Co. plan to invest $250 million in Rockefeller Center Properties Inc. and create a new company that could take control of the Manhattan landmark.

Rockefeller Center Properties, which holds the $1.3 billion mortgage on the center, announced the deal Wednesday.

___

By The Associated Press

Stocks ended mixed Wednesday as U.S. multinationals lost ground to technology issues amid concerns that a strong U.S. dollar will erode profits from overseas operations. The Dow Jones average fell 1.76 to 4,639.08.

The dollar rose, gold fell and bonds were marginally higher.

Lumber and copper futures prices surged Wednesday on news that U.S. housing starts posted their steepest gain in 16 months in July. On other commodity markets, gasoline futures fell sharply on news of higher U.S. gasoline stocks and wheat futures tumbled amid a lack of substantial export demand.