Wednesday AM August 13th, 2008

The Paris-based International Energy Agency says oil prices will remain high despite the recent drop. In its monthly report, the agency says demand in developing countries could offset declines in developed nations. Crude has fallen 20 per cent from its early July highs. The group's report comes after China said crude imports in July were down seven percent from the same month last year. The IEA cautions that it is too early to say whether the recent price decline will stick. It sees Chinese oil demand continuing to grow at a robust pace. At the pump, AAA says the average price nationally for regular unleaded gasoline is just under $3.80 a gallon. That's down nearly 32 cents from the high last month.

Government data show the U.S. trade deficit unexpectedly fell in June as exports advanced to an all-time high, offsetting another big surge in oil imports. The Commerce Department reported the trade imbalance dropped to $56.8 billion in June, down by 4.1 percent from a revised May deficit of $59.2 billion. It's the smallest deficit in three months and much better than the $61.5 billion deficit Wall Street had been expecting. The report shows that exports of goods and services rose to a record of $164.4 billion, helped by the dollar's declines earlier in the year, which have made U.S. goods cheaper on overseas markets. Imports also rose to a record, but the increase was driven by surging oil prices.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent a little more than $14.4 million in aid to residents of three South Texas counties hit by Hurricane Dolly. Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy Counties were declared eligible on July 31st to receive the aid for individual assistance for temporary housing assistance for those forced from their homes, as well as money for limited home repairs. The deadline to apply is September 30th. Residents in those counties will be able to register for the assistance immediately through the FEMA hot line at 800-621-FEMA and the agency's website. Dolly hit the lower South Texas coast July 23rd as a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mile-per-hour wind. It dumped more than a foot of rain in places.

A survey of insurers by Aon Consulting Worldwide indicates health care costs are expected to rise an average of 10.6 per cent into next year. That's the smallest increase Aon has seen in six years. But the percentage doesn't reflect insurance plan designs or changes an employer might make to benefit plans, so it may not be what the average employee faces for a premium hike next year. Aon Consulting surveyed about 70 health insurers.

The AARP has filed comments in support of petitions filed at the Public Utility Commission to adopt emergency rules prohibiting the disconnection of electricity service through September 30th. State Senator Juan Hinojosa and State Representative Sylvester Turner and several groups, including the Texas Ratepayers Organization to Save energy, the Texas Legal Services Center and the Office of Public Utility Counsel, filed petitions last Thursday. The AARP says record temperatures and skyrocketing rates have created extremely high bills, endangering the health of the elderly.

The National Federation of Independent Business says its monthly Index of Small Business Optimism dropped one point to a recession level of 88.2 in July, according to the Houston Business Journal. The NFIB says half the decline is due to weaker capital spending plans. Lower earnings, fewer job openings and lower inventory satisfaction also posted declines.

Some retailers are benefiting from the trading down being seen among bargain-conscious consumers. That includes TJX Companies, parent to T.J. Maxx and Marshalls stores. It says second-quarter profits more than tripled from a year ago when the discount fashion retailer had a charge for a widely publicized security breach. TJX also is raising its profit outlook as it benefits from shoppers looking for cheaper items than sold elsewhere.

Early reports indicate this year's hybrid rice harvest in the Texas and Louisiana coastal regions will exceed previous years. Alvin-based RiceTec's technical services representative Mark Spillman says Texas hybrid rice yields are up, as of August 1st. Growers had to pump a lot of water into the fields to irrigate the rice, Spillman believes these yields will help offset the expense of water. RiceTec marketing and sales support manager Chad Duckworth says hybrids are consistently producing 20 to 30 per cent better yields.

The George R. Brown Convention Center has ended its fiscal year with a nearly 50 per cent increase in hotel night bookings and an increase in facility rental revenues. Room nights connected to GRB conventions totaled 385,241—a 48.6 per cent increase over last fiscal year's 259,283. Facility rental income rose to $2,748,688—a gain of 22.7 per cent from $2,239,851 the previous year.

A 50-megawatt biomass plant in East Texas is expected to break ground in September after receiving an air permit from state regulators. Aspen Power says the plant will about 525,000 tons of logging debris and municipal wood waste per year to provide power to the Lufkin area--beginning in September 2009. The company says the plant will cost about $100 million to build. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last month approved Aspen Power's air permit. Another company, Nacogdoches Power, is planning to build a 100-megawatt plant in East Texas that would open in 2012.

Schlumberger and First Reserve won European antitrust approval to buy Canada's Saxon Energy Services in a $553 million deal.

Houston-based EV Energy Partners is purchasing natural gas and oil properties in deals worth $202.7 million. The deal includes four agreements to purchase properties in the San Juan Basin, Oklahoma, Kansas, West Virginia, Texas Panhandle and Eastland County, Texas.

A division of KBR has landed a $64 million contract with EFACEC Power Transformers to build a power transformer manufacturing facility in Rincon, Georgia. KBR division BE&K Building Group began work on the project last month. Completion is expected in August 2009.

Houston-based Sun & Ski Sports is opening two new Dallas-area stores this year. They will be the first new stores in the 19-store chain since 2001. The company's chief executive says the slower economy affords better real estate deals.

The Federal Reserve has auctioned another $25 billion in loans to the nation's banks in an effort to combat a serious credit squeeze. The Fed announced that the money would be loaned at a rate of 2.754 percent. In the latest auction, the Fed says it offered the loans for an extended period of 84 days, rather than the 28-day period for the previous loans. It marks the Fed's latest attempt to be innovative in providing the nation's banking system with the cash it needs to combat a serious credit crisis stemming from mounting mortgage loan losses which hit a year ago.

Delta Airlines' acquisition of Northwest Airlines is one step closer to completion. Pilots with both carriers have approved a joint collective bargaining agreement. Ratification has been a key element of Delta's efforts to achieve a smooth integration of the two companies, expected to be completed later this year. Delta's pilots union issued a memo detailing the results Monday. The deadline for rank-and-file pilots of both airlines to vote. The agreement covers roughly 12,000 pilots of the two airlines. The pilots still do not have a deal to integrate their seniority lists but have agreed to submit to binding arbitration if they cannot come to terms. Delta's stock-swap deal to acquire northwest, announced in April, still needs shareholder and U.S. regulatory approvals. European regulators cleared the deal last week. The combination would create the world's largest carrier in terms of traffic.

JPMorgan Chase says it has incurred more substantial losses in its mortgage investments so far in the third quarter than it did in all of the previous quarter. In a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, New York-based bank blames turbulence in the credit markets. It says it's lost about $1.5 billion in its mortgage-backed securities and loans so far in the July-to-September quarter, after hedges. That's on top of the $1.1billion markdown JPMorgan Chase took in its investment bank's portfolio during the second quarter.


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