Tuesday PM February 9th, 2010

Allstate Insurance is opening an $11.6 million customer call center in San Antonio. The complex is expected to generate 600 jobs and help expand Allstate's operations in English and Spanish. Governor Rick Perry says the state will invest $1.1 million through the Texas Enterprise Fund. Allstate spokesman Mark Pitchford says the San Antonio center will join existing units in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Woodridge, Illinois. The 75,000 square foot facility is scheduled to open in May. Allstate currently employs about 1,300 at a national processing center in Irving. The company has 2,700 agency owners, financial specialists and claim representatives across Texas.


Finding a job got much tougher last year, as the number of available openings fell by nearly one quarter. At the same time, the unemployed population soared by more than one-third, leaving more laid-off workers competing for fewer jobs. Labor Department data indicates there were 6.1 unemployed workers in December, on average, for every available position. That's a sharp increase from 3.4 jobless workers per opening in December of 2008, and much worse than 1.7 jobless workers per opening in December 2007, when the recession began. The Labor Department's job openings and labor turnover survey says there were 2.5 million jobs available at the end of December. But that's down from 3.2 million a year earlier.


Businesses slashed wholesale inventories sharply in December, a much weaker showing than had been expected. The Commerce Department says that wholesale inventories were reduced 0.8 percent in December. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected inventories to rise by one percent during the month. The government said that sales at the wholesale level did rise in December, increasing 0.8 percent. The weakness in inventory rebuilding in December was an indication that businesses, still struggling to emerge from the deepest recession in decades, are not yet confident enough in rising sales to begin rebuilding their stockpiles on a sustained basis.


Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson predicted the U.S. government will regain every penny given to the nation's banks during the economic meltdown and may even profit. Billionaire Warren Buffett agreed with Paulson that the bank bailout will eventually be profitable for the nation. The two men spoke at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting. Buffett led the talk by asking Paulson about his recently released book On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System. Buffett, the longtime Democrat, said Paulson's book gave him an appreciation of how well former President George W. Bush understood the economy and how the government reacted during crisis.


Senate Democrats have started circulating a jobs bill--one that doesn't contain a lot of new initiatives for boosting hiring. It does contain provisions that have been sought by lobbyists for business groups, doctors and the satellite broadcasting industry. The measure is still in draft form, and hasn't been officially released. Among the few new ideas for creating jobs is a $10 billion plan to exempt companies from paying the employer's share of social security payroll taxes for new hires if they are unemployed and hired this year. It's an idea seen as more workable than President Barack Obama's plan for tax credits of up to $5,000 for new hires. The measure ignores some of Obama's other ideas as well, including a $250 payment to social security recipients and $25 billion in help for states. The rest of the measure is mostly made up of some of last year's unfinished business--including renewal of business tax breaks that have expired, and an extension of unemployment benefits.

President Obama says he doesn't think it's necessary to get an ideal jobs package out of Congress, but that passing something quickly could build momentum toward greater achievements. Obama told reporters he thinks Democrats and Republicans agree on a number of elements in a jobs bill, including eliminating capital gains for small businesses and finding ways to help community banks lend to smaller firms. The president also said he thinks "it's realistic for us to get a package moving quickly that may not include all the things that I think need to be done." He said, "maybe that first package will build some trust and confidence that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can work together. It may take a series of incremental steps."

President Obama says American businesses will be able to look ahead with confidence, once they're convinced that officials in Washington have their "act together." Obama says there's reason for optimism in an economy that had been contracting, but is now expanding. And he says he's heard CEOs say they can now make investments and hire more rapidly. But he says they also want to believe that Washington is "able to get things done." Obama told reporters that simply going back to the way things were, without reforms in the financial sector, is not the right way to end the uncertainty facing American businesses. He called on Republicans to work on a bipartisan effort for new financial regulation and for health care reform.

President Obama says the country must develop cleaner energy technologies while at the same time still relying upon traditional power sources like nuclear and coal. Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama said the United States "can't overnight convert to an all-solar, all-wind economy." He said he is convinced the nation that leads the way in clean energy "is going to win the race in the 21st century global economy." Obama said America will continue to "need some of the old traditional energy sources as we're developing these new ones, ramping them up." He said ways must be found to increase oil and natural gas production and that America has "to take a both-end approach, rather than an either-or approach" to energy policy.


Texas has announced a $30 million homebuyer initiative targeting veterans. The funding was announced by Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. The state, through TDHCA, is releasing $30 million in mortgage credit certificate authority through its Texas Mortgage Credit Program. The first time homebuyer status requirement is waived for qualifying veterans who have received an honorable discharge. The program makes home ownership more affordable by providing a dollar for dollar reduction of a borrower's tax liability, not to exceed $2,000 annually. Some other restrictions apply.


More than 130,000 Prius cars and nearly 15,000 Lexus vehicles in the United States are among those that Toyota is recalling to fix a brake problem. The new recalls bring to 8.5 million the number of vehicles recalled around the world by Toyota, because of problems involving the brakes and the gas pedals. Today's recall affects models that went on sale last year. There have been about 200 complaints in Japan and the U.S. about a delay when the brakes were pressed in some conditions. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says Toyota's leaders have assured him they are taking safety concerns "very seriously." Meanwhile, a Congressional hearing into Toyota's massive recalls has been postponed because of a snowstorm expected to hit the capital beginning Tuesday. A House oversight panel says it hopes to hold the Toyota hearing on February 23th. Lawmakers are expected to hear testimony from LaHood, Toyota Motor North America Chairman CEO Yoshi Inaba, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator David Strickland and two safety experts.

The nation's largest auto insurer says it alerted federal safety regulators in late 2007 about a rise in reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyota vehicles. State Farm Insurance says it noticed an uptick in reports of unwanted acceleration in Toyotas from its large database and warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Congressional investigators are looking into whether the government missed warning signs of problems with Toyota vehicles. The Japanese automaker has recalled millions of vehicles. NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana says State Farm forwarded the agency a September 7th, 2007, claim letter to Toyota concerning a crash involving a 2005 Camry. She says the report was reviewed and added to their complaint database.


Southwest Airlines is offering a sale geared toward leisure travelers who want to make short trips this spring. Southwest said it will sell tickets starting at $39 each way on some routes under 500 miles. As usual, the airline didn't say how many seats it will offer at the sale price. The sale ends Thursday. Delta, American, United, Continental and US Airways matched the sale prices on routes where they compete with Southwest, said Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestfares.com.

Federal officials are investigating Southwest Airlines over the way it handled structural repairs on dozens of jets, according to a person familiar with the situation. The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that it is investigating whether Southwest followed safety orders dealing with the maintenance of older planes. Inspectors believe Southwest and a repair shop near Seattle conducted repairs on 44 jets without getting FAA approval first. The person familiar with the matter did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation. Last year, Southwest agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle charges that it operated nearly 60,000 flights with planes that had missed mandatory inspections for structural cracks. In September, the FAA ordered Southwest to replace unapproved parts on about 50 planes.


Japan Airlines today spurned Delta Air Lines and decided to stay with American Airlines. The Japanese carrier says it will strengthen its partnership with Fort Worth-based American, and the two airlines will jointly seek antitrust immunity on Trans-Pacific routes. The decision brings to an end a fierce tug-of-war over Japan's ailing flagship carrier, which is restructuring under bankruptcy but offers the U.S. airlines access to lucrative Asian routes. American and its OneWorld partners plan to deliver to JAL roughly $2 billion in ongoing and incremental revenue over three years. The agreement does not involve a cash injection from American. The Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation called today's news a "massive win" for Gerard Arpey, CEO of American's parent company AMR Corporation.


An Iraq war contractor is asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit by Oregon National Guard soldiers over potential health risks from a cancer-causing chemical called hexavalent chromium. Lawyers for Kellogg, Brown & Root on Monday argued the federal court in Oregon lacks jurisdiction in the case. The Houston-based company, now called KBR, has also been sued by National Guard soldiers in Indiana and West Virginia. KBR and its subsidiaries won contracts to restore oil production after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, where National Guard troops were ordered to guard KBR employees as they worked to get the petroleum flowing. Soldiers say the contractor ignored and downplayed the health risks of hexavalent chromium, a corrosion fighter that was scattered across one facility.


Government safety officials are recalling drop-side cribs sold at Buy Buy Baby, Kmart, Walmart and other stores after the death of three infants. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says plastic hardware on Generation 2 Worldwide and Childesigns cribs can break and allow the drop side to detach. Also, the mattress supports can break away from the crib frames. Both defects create gaps where a small child can be trapped and suffocate or strangle. The agency has received three reports of children who died after getting trapped in gaps between the drop sides of their cribs and their mattresses. The cribs were made by Generation 2 Worldwide, which went out of business in 2005.


The U.S. orange crop is expected to fall 14 percent from last year because of an unusual freeze in Florida this winter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the orange harvest will be down 21 percent in Florida compared to last year's yield. The national harvest this year will be close to 8 million tons, with 5.8 million coming from Florida. The USDA cut its forecast after eight days of subfreezing temperatures hit the southeast in early January.


 

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