Tuesday PM December 15th, 2009

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling's appeal of his criminal convictions on March 1st, earlier than expected. Skilling was convicted in 2006 on conspiracy, securities fraud, insider trading and lying to auditors involving the Houston-based company's 2001 collapse. Justices in Washington added the Skilling case to its calendar for late February and early March after hearing arguments last week in two cases that raise doubts about the validity of the same federal fraud law under which Skilling was convicted. The court appeared eager to hear his arguments against the law because Skilling's case poses a clearer constitutional challenge to the honest services fraud law than appeals filed by former newspaper mogul Conrad Black and former Alaska lawmaker Bruce Weyhrauch. Skilling is serving a 24-year prison term.


The Greater Houston Partnership end-of-year forecast indicates Houston will have a net gain of 1,900 jobs in the first half of 2010, according to the Houston Business Journal. Job losses in construction are expected to continue at an annual rate of about 3.1 per cent, and the energy industry may see continued layoffs. But demand for chemicals and plastics and an upturn in Asian economies will bring growth to Houston's wholesale trade sector.


The National Association of Home Builders says its housing market index slipped in December, reflecting concern that job losses will continue to stifle demand for new homes despite the extension of a homebuyer tax credit. The Washington-based trade association says its index fell one point to 16, the lowest since June. Readings below 50 indicate negative sentiment about the market. The last time the index was above 50 was in April 2006. The report reflects a survey of 514 residential developers nationwide. The reading for current sales conditions slipped one point to 16. Traffic by prospective buyers held steady at 13. The index for sales expectations over the next six months fell two points to 26.


Inflation at the wholesale level surged in November, reflecting price jumps in energy and other products. The bigger-than-expected increase is certain to raise the attention of Federal Reserve policymakers beginning a two-day meeting on interest rates. The Fed has been able to keep interest rates at record-low levels to bolster the shaky recovery, but if inflation pressures begin to mount, the central bank could be forced to start raising rates sooner than expected. The Labor Department says wholesale prices jumped 1.8 per cent in November, more than double the 0.8 per cent gain analysts expected. Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, rose 0.5 per cent, the biggest increase in more than a year.


An $88 million public housing rebuilding plan has been approved by the Galveston Housing Authority as Hurricane Ike recovery continues. The proposal, involving more than 500 units, still faces planning commission and city council approval. The housing panel approved a measure offered by Commissioner Ray Lewis. The plan would include public housing units built at the prior sites, plus nearly 200 units spread across the island. Ike hit Galveston on September 13th, 2008, swamping parts of the island city.


A new poll suggests that more Americans believe that taking steps to reduce global warming pollution will help the U.S. economy rather than hurt it. The Associated Press-Stanford University poll finds that 40 per cent of those surveyed say U.S. action to slow global warming in the future will create jobs. About 46 per cent say it would boost the economy. By contrast, less than a third say curbing climate change would hurt the economy and bring fewer jobs. The findings may be a sign that the public is showing more faith in President Barack Obama's economic arguments for limiting heat-trapping gases than in Republican claims that the actions would kill jobs.


A Texas company that operates seven ethanol plants in four states is the winning bidder to buy a bankrupt ethanol plant in southern Wisconsin. Valero Energy of San Antonio said it will buy the renew energy plant in Jefferson for $72 million, if the purchase is approved by federal antitrust regulators. Valero was one of four bidders for the plant, which can produce 110 million gallons of ethanol per year. The Journal Sentinel reports renew filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors earlier this year. It notified the state that 70 employees would be out of work if a buyer could not be found.


Cobalt International Energy will ask investors this week to invest more than $1 billion in its search for oil miles beneath the ocean. That's even though it has no proven reserves and it expects no revenue for at least another two years. The Houston-based company is looking to raise about $955 million from its initial public offering--if investors agree to pay $16 for each share. That's the midpoint of the range the company is seeking. Proceeds could exceed $1.1 billion, after expenses, if the offering's underwriters exercise an option to buy more shares. But analysts who research IPOs say cobalt is a risky bet. Founded in 2005 by a group of private equity investors and longtime oil industry executives, cobalt has posted losses throughout its history and no one really knows where volatile oil prices will be in three years. Analysts say that when the company strikes oil, cobalt will need more time to get a well in production.


Nearly 8,000 Continental Airlines fleet service employees will vote starting January 4th through February 8th on whether to form a union with the Teamsters. The National Mediation Board election will be done by telephone and the Internet. Some 2,900 Houston employees make up the nearly 8,000 eligible Continental employees. The Teamsters represent more than 1.4 million men and women in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.


Fifteen airlines say they've signed memorandums of understandings that could lead to the purchase of hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel made from either coal or camolina, a weed that's a cousin to canola. The agreements were announced by the Air Transport Association. United Airlines Chairman Glen Tilton--who is also chairman of the association--said the agreements show airlines are actively working to stimulate competition to jet fuel made from oil. Airlines from the United States, Canada, Germany and Mexico have signed memorandums with Altair Fuels of Seattle to produce fuel from camelina and Rentech of Los Angeles to produce fuel from coal or petroleum coke.


A group that assists in managing Eskimo whaling in Alaska has sued to halt petroleum drilling proposed next year in the Beaufort Sea by a subsidiary of Shell Oil. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a drilling plan approved in October by the Minerals Management Sservice. The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco, says MMS failed to consider the cumulative effects on bowhead whales when it approved plans by Shell Gulf of Mexico to drill in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast. The groups say drilling will disrupt bowhead whale migration and that whales could be harmed by a spill.


General Motors chairman and CEO says GM plans to repay all of its $6.7 billion in government loans by the end of June. Ed Whitacre, Jr., says the company plans to make quarterly installments starting this month with a $1.2 billion payment. He says it could repay sooner but that hasn't been decided. In addition to the loans, GM has received $45.3 billion in aid from the government which was converted into an equity stake. Whitacre also says government pay restrictions will make the search for a new CEO more difficult, but he's confident the company can still find a strong leader. Fritz Henderson resigned on December 1st after he and the board differed on the direction of the company.


The number two Democrat in the House says Congress will pass a two-month, $200 billion-plus increase in the government's ability to borrow as one of its final acts before closing shop for Christmas. It's a change of plans for Democrats, who had hoped to enact a far larger increase of up to $1.9 trillion to avoid having to cast another unpopular vote to increase the debt limit before next year's midterm elections. But Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer said the two-month increase is all that can get through the notoriously slow-moving Senate before year's end. It would require another vote in February. The Treasury Department has said that the borrowing limit must be increased before December 31st.


House Democratic leaders are proposing almost $50 billion in spending on highways, housing, school repairs and other projects as part of a year-end plan to create jobs. The measure responds to calls among rank-and-file Democrats for additional spending to keep the fragile recovery on track and do more to boost employment as the jobless rate hovers at ten per cent. A draft of the plan says there's also more than $20 billion to help retain teachers. The Senate, however, won't act until next month at the earliest and has less of an appetite for another costly round of economic stimulus measures. All told, the measure tops $150 billion, counting help for the unemployed and aid to strapped state and local governments.


President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to provide new incentives for Americans to update their homes to make them more energy efficient. Speaking at a Home Depot store in northern Virginia, he said energy-efficient retrofits are one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to put Americans back to work and help them save money. The home retrofitting proposal is part of a plan the president announced to jump-start job growth. It also calls for more spending on infrastructure and small business tax cuts. The administration hasn't put a price tag on the plan, but it could cost more than $150 billion. Vice President Joe Biden says stimulus spending and other initiatives will lead to a million home energy-efficiency retrofits by 2012.


Foreign demand for long-term U.S. financial assets slowed in October and China's holdings of U.S. treasury securities was unchanged. Continued strong demand for U.S. debt is critical to financing America's soaring budget deficits and keeping domestic interest rates low enough to support a broad economic recovery. The Treasury Department says foreigners purchased $20.7 billion more in assets than they sold in October, down from a $40.7 billion increase in September. That had been the biggest gain since June. China, the largest holder of U.S. Treasury securities, maintained its holdings at $798.9 billion in October.


The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the window covering industry are urging parents to check all shades and blinds in the home. That follows the recall of more than 50 million Roman-style shades and roll-up blinds because of the risk children may be strangled by the cords. Parents are advised to make sure cords aren't accessible and that furniture is placed so children can't reach the cords. The commission says five deaths and 16 near-strangulations from Roman shades have been reported since 2006. Three deaths connected to roll-up blinds have been reported since 2001. Consumers can get free retrofit kits online at www.windowcoverings.org or by calling the Window Covering Safety Council.


The United States is counting on cows to help reduce its carbon footprint. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the dairy industry 25 per cent by 2020, mostly by convincing farmers to capture the methane from cow manure that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere. Agriculture accounts for about seven per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A big part of the plan includes convince more farmers to purchase anaerobic digesters that essentially convert cow manure into electricity. The problem is that until now only two per cent of dairy farmers who are good candidates for the technology are using it.


Comcast subscribers can now watch several cable television shows and movies on the Internet. Viewing is only available to subscribers, and what each customer can watch depends on the cable TV package subscribed. All told, Comcast is making programs available from 27 cable channels including HBO and Cinemax. Comcast, which announced its online video plans in July, is the first cable company to offer cable TV content online at no additional charge. The nation's largest cable television operator says customers can watch the shows starting today. Previously, shows available for free online are generally limited to ones from the over-the-air broadcasters or older movies. Other subscription TV operators with similar plans in the works include Time Warner Cable and Verizon Communications.


 

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