Thursday PM April 8th, 2010

The number of newly laid-off workers seeking unemployment benefits rose last week, a sign that jobs remain scarce even as the economy recovers. The Labor Department said first-time claims increased by 18,000 to a seasonally adjusted 460,000. That's worse than economists' estimates of a drop to 435,000, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters. The report covers the week that includes the Easter holiday, and a Labor Department analyst said seasonal adjustment for that week can be difficult since the Easter holiday occurs in different weeks each year. The tally of people continuing to claim benefits for more than a week fell by 131,000 to 4.55 million, the lowest level since December 2008.


NASA's chief says a future without space shuttles or a moon mission could conceivably increase the number of agency jobs. NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that because NASA has more money overall, it should have more jobs compared to the now-dead moon mission. But more of those jobs will be on research into airplanes and climate change. Bolden said in NASA's reorganization some areas that concentrate on the space shuttle will lose contractor jobs because the shuttle fleet is being retired this year. It was supposed to be replaced by a moon mission but the president canceled that. Bolden said that with new technology and commercial space programs, the agency should be able to keep federal space shuttle workers on different jobs.


The public library system in the largest city in Texas is cutting hours when facilities will be open in a money-saving move. The Houston Public Library System is reducing its hours by 28 percent. The system is closing most of its 42 branches on Saturdays, plus will trim expenditures for library materials. Library Director Rhea Lawson says many services will be accessible via computer. The system has about $2.2 million less in its budget than it anticipated at the start of the 2010 fiscal year. Most of the Houston public libraries will now be open 51 hours a week, instead of the current 71. Lawson says 42 vacant staff positions will not be filled. The changes take effect April 17th.


Warmer weather combined with an early Easter to bring shoppers into stores last month. It made for a fourth straight month of rising sales for retailers. Target, Macy's, Gap and Limited Brands posted double-digit increases, beating Wall Street analysts' expectations. Overall, sales in stores open at least a year rose nine percent in March, based on an index of 31 retailers compiled by the International Council of Shopping Centers. That was the strongest showing in 11 years. Sales improved as customers sprung for spring merchandise, particularly clothing.


Retail gasoline prices soared across Texas this week. The weekly AAA Texas survey showed the average price of regular unleaded gasoline spiked eight cents from last week to $2.75 per gallon. Nationally, the average price rose seven cents to $2.86 per gallon. The cheapest fuel is found in San Antonio, where regular unleaded is averaging $2.68 per gallon despite a seven-cent spike from last week. The most expensive gasoline in Texas is in Beaumont, where the average price rose 11 cents to $2.80 per gallon. An auto club statement attributes the increase to crude oil prices boosted by investor optimism over a resurging economy. It also notes the approaching summer peak driving season, although gasoline supplies remain high despite refineries operating at less than full capacity.


A ConocoPhillips and BP partnership has proposed a $35 billion pipeline to move natural gas from Alaska's North Slope to North American markets. Denali says the project would be "one of the largest private investments in the history of North America." It would result in a pipeline stretching more than 1,700 miles with delivery points in Alaska and Canada and a gas treatment plant on the slope. ConocoPhillips and BP claim lease rights for about half of known North Slope gas. The slope's other major player Exxon is helping Transcanada with a competing project with a price tag between $20 billion and $41 billion. Both ventures aim to be in service by around 2020, with plans to deliver about 4.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day to North American markets.


Reconstruction is expected to begin this month on the Texas City dike devastated by 2008's Hurricane Ike. City Commissioners last night awarded the $4 million contract to Houston-based SER Construction Partners. The agreement includes repairs to the closed dike and rebuilding of the pier road, which was washed away when Ike made landfall in September 2008. Texas City last month received $2.6 million from the federal government to help fund repairs. Mayor Matt Doyle says when the dike reopens the city will start charging a per-car fee for access. Texas City will be using state grant funds from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to help pay to fix the boat ramps.


Interest rates are inching lower in the bond market as anxiety over Greece's debt problems worsened. Renewed concerns about a possible default by Greece on its debt is weighing on markets globally, spurring investors to sell stocks and seek out the relative safety of government debt. The yield on the benchmark ten-year note maturing in February 2020 fell to 3.85 percent from 3.87 percent. Its price is down 3/32 at 98 6/32. The yield of the ten-year note is linked to interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans.


Rates for 30-year home loans surged last week, rising to the highest level in eight months due to the improving economy and the end of a government push to make mortgages cheaper. The mortgage finance company Freddie Mac says the average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage was 5.21 percent this week, up from 5.08 percent a week earlier. That's the highest since the week ending August 13th, 2009, when the average rate was 5.29 percent. Rates had dropped to a record low of 4.71 percent in December, pushed down by a $1.25 trillion campaign by the Federal Reserve to reduce consumers' borrowing costs. That ended last week.


The Department of Transportation says U.S. airlines operated fewer on-time flights in February, as massive snow storms hampered operations at some of the largest east coast airports. Sixty-one flights were delayed for at least three hours during the month--triple the number of those delays in January. It was the highest number of three-hour tarmac delays since August 2009. DOT said cancellations also soared in February due to storms. Airlines canceled 5.5 percent of their scheduled domestic flights that month, compared with 2.5 percent in January and 1.2 percent in February 2009. Hawaiian Airlines, largely isolated from bad weather, held its usual spot on top of the on-time rankings. The worst at arriving on time were Comair, Pinnacle and JetBlue.


J.C. Penney raised its first-quarter earnings outlook after sales climbed in March. The retailer says that it expects to earn between 20 cents and 24 cents per share for the three-month period. That's up from its previous estimate of a profit between 16 cents and 20 cents per share. J.C. Penney forecast sales to climb about two percent during the quarter. That compares with its previous estimate of "flat to slightly positive" sales. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect J.C. Penney to earn 21 cents per share with revenue of $3.90 billion--a less than one percent increase. During the same period last year, J.C. Penney earned 11 cents per share with revenue of $3.88 billion.


 

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