Tuesday PM October 27th, 2009

President Barack Obama is giving a jolt to the futuristic "smart" electric grid, hoping to bring America's power transmission system into the digital age more quickly, and Houston is benefitting. Obama is making available $3.4 billion in government support for 100 projects aimed at modernizing the power grid. CenterPoint is being awarded $200 million to complete the installation of 2.2 million smart meters and 550 sensors and automated switches to help the self-healing properties of the grid during disturbances like natural disasters. The projects include installing "smart" electric meters in homes, automating utility substations and installing thousands of new digital transformers and grid sensors. Officials have argued that a more modern grid is needed to give consumers better control over their electricity usage and costs, and to spur development of renewable energy sources. The $3.4 billion is part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and will be matched by industry funding for a total public-private investment worth over $8 billion.


Consumers' confidence about the U.S. economy fell unexpectedly in October as job prospects remained bleak. The Conference Board's consumer confidence index shows Americans are as worried about the economy's current state as they've been in nearly three decades. They also have a grim outlook for the future, expecting a worsening business climate, fewer jobs and lower salaries. That sentiment drove the results, which showed the index falling to 47.7 in October. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected a reading of 53.1. A reading above 90 means the economy is on solid footing. Above 100 signals strong growth. The index has seesawed since a historic low of 25.3 in February and climbed to 53.4 in September.


Home prices rise for the third straight month in August, signaling a housing recovery is taking hold. The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index of 20 major cities rose one per cent from July to a seasonally adjusted reading of 144.5. While prices are down 11.4 per cent from August a year ago, the annual declines have slowed since February. Prices are at levels not seen since August 2003 and have fallen almost 30 per cent from the peak in May 2006. The latest index shows a widespread turnaround with prices rising month-over-month in 15 metro areas since June. Industry experts, however, still worry that rising unemployment and foreclosures could stifle the rebound.


A leak in a Dow Chemical underground pipeline prompted the evacuation of more than 60 homes in Freeport, about 60 miles south of Houston. Dow Chemical spokeswoman Trish Rithaller says crews are digging in an area around the pipeline, in a field, to repair the leak. The accident involves a urethane product. She says the underground pipeline leak was discovered Sunday morning and the area has been secured. Plant workers on Monday were dispatched to neighborhoods to advise residents to relocate to hotels and expect to be out of their homes for several days. No injuries were reported.


Consumers for the first time this year are paying more on average for a gallon of gasoline than they did 12 months ago. There's a good chance that this week, retail gasoline will surpass peak summer prices reached just over four months ago. Refiners are cutting back on production now because the cost of the crude that they convert to fuel has been rising fast, but demand for fuel from businesses and consumers remains relatively weak. A gallon of gas climbed 0.4 cents higher overnight to nearly $2.68 a gallon, according to auto club AAA. Prices a year ago were $2.67 a gallon. At this time last year, however, gasoline prices were falling fast as the financial crisis on wall street spread to main street.


Kuwait's oil minister says OPEC is not expected to raise output before its members achieve "100 per cent" compliance with production quotas. Sheik Ahmed al Abdullah al Sabah also told reporters that current oil prices are "very good," and that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would hold a special meeting if oil hits $100 per barrel. The oil producing bloc, which includes Kuwait, has not changed its output targets since the end of last year when it said it was lowering production by 4.2 million barrels per day from September 2008 levels to buoy collapsing oil prices. While prices have since more than doubled, reaching $79 per barrel on Tuesday, OPEC quota compliance has been faltering. OPEC is scheduled to meet December 2nd in Angola.


Southwest Airlines has launched an air fare sale in which some flights cost the same as what other carriers charge to check a bag. Dallas-based Southwest announced one-way travel as low as $25, based on the length of the flight. The discount carrier says fares are $25 for travel up to 375 miles. The price is $50 for travel between 375 and 549 miles, and $75 for flights between 550 and 999 miles. A one-way fare of more than 1,000 miles costs $100. The fares are available for purchase through Thursday, for travel between December 2nd and December 16th, or between January 5th and February 10th. Other restrictions apply.


Women trail men in economic and political power, but the Nordic countries come closest to closing the gender gap, according to a World Economic Forum survey. The four Nordic countries have topped the global gender gap index since it was first released in 2006 by the Geneva-based group. They did so again this year, but Iceland replaced Norway in the top position. Finland was second; Norway, third; and Sweden, fourth. Two African countries--South Africa and Lesotho--entered the list of the top ten countries for the first time, according to the survey of 134 countries. At the bottom of the list were Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Benin, Pakistan, Chad and Yemen.


Asian brands again dominated Consumer Reports' 2009 car and truck reliability survey, but several Ford models were as dependable or better than the industry's best. Asian brands have scored best in the survey for years. The magazine says Toyota's Scion small-car brand topped the reliability list for the second year in a row. Brands from Chrysler and General Motors continued to struggle. Honda, Toyota, Infiniti and Acura rounded out the top five. Ford's Mercury finished tenth. It's the only Detroit brand to rank in the top ten. The Chrysler brand was the worst of 33 brands sold in the U.S. Consumer Reports based its reliability rankings on surveys filled out by subscribers who own 1.4 million vehicles. The magazine says several Ford vehicles have world-class reliability.


Earnings

America's largest independent petroleum refiner says its losses widened over the past three months with Americans traveling less and the price of crude rising. San Antonio-based Valero Energy reports a loss of $489 million for the third quarter, which ended in September. That compares to a profit of $1.2 billion in the third quarter of last year. The past year has been particularly bad for refiners because the cost of oil they must buy to make gas, jet fuel and other refined products has been spiking. Demand for fuel has not rebounded, however, because of the recession. Oil prices have bounced of earlier lows mostly because of the weak dollar. Crude contracts, which are priced in dollars, get more expensive as U.S. currency falls and investors holding euros and other strong foreign money can buy more.


 

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