Tuesday PM August 18th, 2009

Bank holding company Guaranty Financial Group has expressed grave concern over its financial condition. The Austin-based company says it's working with federal regulators to pursue possible buyers or other alternatives. Guaranty Financial, which is the parent of Guaranty Bank, said in a regulatory filing that it won't be filing its second-quarter financial statements on time and it's critically short of capital. Guaranty Financial, with around $15 billion in assets and 160 branches in Texas and California, last month said it likely wouldn't be able to stay in business. It reported an additional $1.45 billion in write-downs on soured loans to homebuilders and borrowers in California and securities tied to mortgages.


The Federal Trade Administration has given METRO permission to enter into Final Design on Houston's North and Southeast light rail lines. The FTA approval is the final prerequisite to entering Full Funding Grant Agreements on both lines. The approval signals the federal government's commitment to fund its part of the projects. METRO can undertake construction preparation such as utility relocation, right-of-way acquisition, development of detailed specifications and preparation of final construction plans. METRO recently issued a $121 million work order for the two new corridors, including initial utility relocation work. METRO estimates some 60,000 direct and indirect jobs will be generated by Houston's light rail system before its completion.


Houston recorded its 23rd consecutive month of declining home sales in July, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. But HAR says Houston reached its highest home sales volume in a year. The total number of homes was down 4.4 per cent from July of 2008. The July median price of a single-family home was up 1.5 per cent from a year earlier, at $163,000. A total of $1.4 billion was spent on all property types in July, compared with $1.5 billion a year earlier.


Construction of new U.S. homes dipped slightly last month, missing expectations, in a sign that the building industry's recovery from the housing bust is likely to be bumpy and gradual. The Commerce Department says construction of new homes and apartments fell one per cent in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 581,000 units, from an upwardly revised rate of 587,000 in June. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters expected a pace of 600,000 units. While construction of single-family homes rose one per cent, multifamily properties slid by more than 13 per cent. Applications for building permits, an indicator of future activity, fell 1.8 per cent to an annual rate of 560,000 units. Economists expected an annual rate of 580,000 units.


Pulte Homes says shareholders for the homebuilder and rival Centex each voted to clear Pulte's takeover of Centex, creating the largest homebuilder in the United States. Richard Dugas, Jr., chief executive of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Pulte, said the companies' shareholders approved the deal by a margin of more than 90 per cent. Under the terms of the deal, investors in Dallas-based Centex will receive 0.975 shares of Pulte common stock for each Centex share they own. The acquisition is valued at around $1.53 billion based on Pulte's stock price Tuesday afternoon.


Wholesale prices dropped sharply in July, and over the past 12 months fell by the largest amount in more than six decades of record-keeping. The Labor Department says wholesale prices dropped 0.9 per cent last month. That's triple the decline economists had expected and was driven by big decreases in both energy and food costs. Over the past 12 months, the prices of goods before they reach store shelves fell 6.8 per cent. Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, also was well-behaved. It dropped 0.1 per cent in July, better than 0.1 per cent gain economists expected.


Houston ranks fifth on a list of total personal income, according to an analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data, as reported by the Houston Business Journal. TPI is defined as the sum of all money received by residents of a fiven area in a given year. Houston had $276.4 billion of income in 2008. Seventy-two U.S. markets currently have more than $25 billion in total personal income. New York City is ranked first in the nation with TPI of $1.031 trillion.


A member of the House Republican leadership says he doesn't think the $787 billion economic stimulus program has worked as advertised. House GOP whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said that no one should be touting the benefits of stimulus--as Vice President Joe Biden has--at a time when national unemployment is at 9.4 per cent. Interviewed on CBS' The Early Show he said that when the administration pressed Congress to act immediately, earlier this year, it projected joblessness no higher than 8.5 per cent. Cantor said at a job fair recently, some 3,200 people showed up in 90 degree weather and said people are still worried job security.


General Motors will announce increased hours at several factories due to rising sales from the government's cash for clunkers program. Union officials say GM will increase production at its Lordstown, Ohio, and Orion township, Michigan, factories. One day will be added to the work week at the Lordstown plant, which makes the Chevrolet Cobalt small car. Increases also are expected at the Orion plant, where the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6 are made. The clunkers program offers up to $4,500 to people who trade older, inefficient vehicles for new, more efficient models. Ford, Honda,, Toyota, Hyundai and Chrysler all have announced production increases due to the program.

A recent survey gives improved marks for customer satisfaction to all three U.S.-based automakers. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all posted significant gains in this year's American customer satisfaction index from the University of Michigan. Nissan, with a 78 out of 100, was one of the few brands to post a decrease from the year before, falling four points, or 4.9 per cent. The overall automotive industry's score was 84, up from 82 the year before. A University of Michigan business professor who heads the annual survey says keeping customers happy is key for the automakers, especially at a time when fewer people are buying cars. He says a satisfied customer could mean repeat business.


Crews today worked to resume operations at a Texas-owned Tesoro oil refinery in North Dakota after the plant lost power and steam. A large black cloud was seen drifting over the Bismarck-Mandan area. North Dakota health officials say there was no public health threat because the soot-filled cloud was high enough that it didn't present hazards at ground level. A spokesman with San Antonio-based Tesoro says the shutdown was expected to be brief and should not result in a reduction in supply. Leif Peterson says the loss of steam and electricity that led to the refinery shutdown happened during a project to upgrade the plant's three boilers to reduce emissions. The plant uses steam to produce its power and also to prevent smoking from the flares that burn off fuel to reduce pressure. The refinery has a daily capacity of 58,000 barrels of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, propane and butane.


In the face of lower energy prices and big supply surpluses, petroleum exploration companies have pulled back bids for today's auction of Gulf of Mexico tracts off the coast of Texas. The federal Minerals Management Service says it received 189 bids from 26 companies on 162 tracts. Last year's sale in the Western Gulf attracted 423 bids from 53 companies on 319 tracts. That sale resulted in $483.9 million in winning bids. Western Gulf blocks are typically centered around natural gas. A year ago, gas was trading for about $9.50 per thousand cubic feet--compared with about $3.10 now.


The 2010 International Energy Conference between the United States and China will kick off this November. Houston City Controller Annise Parker says Houston will serve as host for a second conference in 2010, with the help of Young Professionals in Energy, which is formalizing agendas for the two conferences.


A New Jersey-based company has signed a lease to operate a cold-storage air cargo facility at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Tradewinds Cargo Handling will begin accepting perishable imports flown into Houston from international markets beginning November 1st. The facility offers direct ramp access for airlines. It's located next to a consolidated Federal Inspection Services center, which could speed up processing of imported products. The new facility is expected to dramatically improve the quality of temperature and time-sensitive imported products for distribution in the central United States.


Southwest Airlines is cutting fares to fill seats during the slow fall and winter seasons. But the lower prices don't cover many days around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Southwest said some seats on a few routes would sell for as little as $59 each way. The fares apply to flights from September 9th through January 7th but aren't available on Fridays and Sundays. Blacked-out dates include November 24th through December 1st and December 18th through January 4th. Tickets must be purchased by September 3rd. The airline said some seats would be sold at $59 each way on routes including Las Vegas-Phoenix and Baltimore-Manchester, New Hampshire. It touted $89 one-way fares between Los Angeles and Seattle, and $109 one-way seats on Dallas-Chicago and New York LaGuardia-Fort Myers, Florida, flights.


The Credit Card Act of 2009 goes into effect on Thursday, offering protection from unfair practices, such as double-cycle billing and APR changes without proper notification. According to BillShrink-dot-com, study of 150 cards, credit card companies have issued a 20 per cent rate hike for non-introductory cards since January, to combat the effects of the legislation. Balance transfer fee maximums have increased an average of 34 per cent. Capital One increased purchase and balance transfer rates 50 per cent. BillShrink is a free online service that gives personalized savings recommendations by matching people with the best cards available on the Internet.


The 31-year-old 12-story office building at 2000 St. James Place has received LEED gold certification, according to the Houston Business Journal. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a national rating system for sustainable green buildings. Constructed in 1978, the building is also one of only 49 buildings in the U.S. to obtain LEED-EB v2.0 Gold or Platinum certification since its release in October 2004, according to owner Cameron Management. Nearly a third of the six-acre site is landscaped to reduce storm water damage and heat island effects. The roof has been coated with a material to minimize heat to save energy. High-efficiency chillers have been installed, with extensive automation control systems.


Blockbuster says it will start offering movies that can be watched on certain Motorola cell phones, a first for the struggling rental company. Blockbuster offered few details on the plan, which expands on the company's OnDemand movie downloading service offered through set-top boxes for TVs. It did not say when the phone service will be available or how much it will cost. Kevin Lewis, Blockbuster's vice president for digital entertainment, said "thousands" of films will be available. The company has been scrambling to find new revenue sources as traffic at movie rental stores wanes and customers move to online video and order-by-mail services like Netflix.


 

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