FINDLAY, Ohio (March 15)—Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. said it expects its earnings for quarter ending March 31 to be least 50 percent higher than previously announced because of the effects of higher-than-expected sales this year so far. Cooper, in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said its sales of tires in January and February increased by more than the 6-percent growth of industrywide replacement tire sales in North America over the first two months of 2001. In addition, Cooper's automotive group is benefiting from modestly higher-than-expected production levels of cars and light trucks. Earlier Cooper had predicted first-quarter earnings of about 20 cents a share. By comparison, earnings in the first quarter of 2001 were 5 cents a share. In response to the release, JP Morgan raised its rating on Cooper to "buy," whereas Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown cut its rating to "market perform" because Cooper's stock price had exceeded its valuation level.