Monday PM October 18th, 2010

Builders are pessimistic about the housing market, but are seeing a little more foot traffic after the worst summer for home sales in a decade. The National Association of Home Builders says its monthly index of builders' sentiment rose in October to 16, the first increase in five months. The index had been at 13 for the past two months, the lowest level since March 2009. October's reading was equal to June. Readings below 50 indicate negative sentiment about the market. The last time the index was above 50 was in April 2006. High unemployment, slow job growth and tight credit have kept people from buying homes.


Industrial production fell in September for the first time since June 2009, and weak consumer demand led factories to pull back for the second time in four months. The Federal Reserve reports that output at the nation's factories, mines and utilities dropped 0.2 percent last month. Output by manufacturers, the largest element of industrial production, also fell 0.2 percent. Production of construction and consumer goods dropped as high unemployment made Americans reluctant to spend. Manufacturing has helped drive economic growth as businesses restocked and replaced worn-out equipment. September's decline could slow that trend. Without consumer demand to take up the slack, industry can't maintain its strong growth.


Average retail gasoline prices have gone up in the Houston area almost three cents over the past week, averaging $2.63 now. The national average is up almost two cents over the week, settling at $2.83 per gallon. In Houston, you’re paying about a quarter more per gallon than you did a year ago at this time, according to HoustonGasPrices.com.


Halliburton says its net income more than doubled in the third quarter as higher natural gas drilling in the U.S. offset a slump in offshore drilling activity following the Gulf oil spill. The Houston petroleum services company reports earnings of $544 million for the three months ended September 30th. That compares with $262 million for the same period last year. Revenue also increased 30 percent to $4.67 billion. Halliburton is the first major oil services company to report third quarter earnings. The results show how a surge in U.S. shale gas is making up for a loss of business in the offshore Gulf of Mexico. The government shut down deep water exploration for months following the BP oil spill and installed new rules that stalled numerous drilling projects.


More than 100 northern West Virginia property owners are accusing Range Resources in a federal lawsuit of cheating them on natural gas leases. The Intelligencer reports the lawsuit claims Fort Worth-based range reneged on leases offering $3,500 per acre and a 17 percent royalty on production. Property owners say range canceled the agreements after oil and gas prices began falling in 2008. Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella says the company did nothing wrong. While land owners signed deals with company representatives, Pitzarella says the contracts required management approval and that never happened. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. district court in Wheeling and involves property owners from Monongalia, Preston, Marion and Harrison Counties.


A new ranking of the nation's 400 biggest charities shows donations dropped by 11 percent overall last year as the Great Recession ended. It's the worst decline in 20 years since the Chronicle of Philanthropy began keeping a tally. The Philanthropy 400 report shows such familiar names as the United Way and the Salvation Army, both based near Washington, continue to dominate the ranking, despite the 2009 declines. Chronicle editor Stacy Palmer says the results are surprising because bigger charities are typically more resilient. An earlier report by the giving USA Foundation found overall charitable giving declined only 3.6 percent last year. But the tally found some of the top charities saw much steeper declines.

A 71-year-old philanthropist from suburban Philadelphia thinks he can solve the country's unemployment woes one charitable donation at a time. Gene Epstein plans to give $1,000 to charity in the name of businesses that hire an unemployed worker and keep them on the payroll for at least six months. Epstein says he'll spend up to $250,000. Lawrence Gelburd, a lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says the program will probably spur conversations about hiring. But he and others aren't sure the incentive is enough to get cash-strapped businesses to actually hire a jobless person.


A company official says a fire at a Kimberly-Clark mill in Connecticut will slow tissue production just as the cold and flu season approaches. No injuries were reported as a result of the fire at the New Milford plant Sunday. Mill manager Dan Lachmann says the extent of damage is still not known, but he expects tissue production will slow. He said the fire was caused when a spark from machinery during the rewind operation ignited a tissue roll. He says it happens occasionally and the company's emergency response team typically extinguishes it. He says the blaze this time was too big and firefighters had to be called. Kimberly-Clark, which makes Kleenex tissues and Huggies diapers, is based in Irving.


The public panned it. Republicans obstructed it. And many Democrats fled from it. But the session of Congress now drawing to a close was the most productive in nearly half a century. Not since the explosive years of the civil rights movement and the hard-fought debut of government-supported health care for the elderly and poor have so many big things--love them or hate them--been done so quickly. Congress passed an $814 billion economic stimulus package soon after President Barack Obama took office, tapping a staggering sum of money to avoid a full-blown depression. Two other landmark acts of this session were the health care overhaul, a giant step toward universal coverage that had eluded presidents back to Franklin Roosevelt, and the Wall Street Accountability Act. Another dozen significant pieces of legislation were passed. Gridlock? It may feel that way. But that's not the story of the 111th Congress.


Some Latino-owned wineries are finding success by catering to Hispanic wine drinkers interested in quality and a connection to their heritage. Esau Herrera of the Hispanic Vintners Association says the number of Latino vintners is small but growing. He says part of that growth comes from making a connection with other Hispanics. In Napa, California, half of Ceja Vineyards' Wine Club is Hispanic. Company president Amelia Ceja says she promotes her wine through dinners, pairing traditional Mexican cuisine with Ceja vineyard reds and whites. Last month, Robledo family winery near Sonoma, California, held a celebration for Mexico's bicentennial and unveiled two new wines dedicated to heroes of the Mexican revolution.


The Wall Street Journal is reporting that ten popular Facebook applications have been transmitting users' personal identifying information to dozens of advertising and internet tracking companies. The newspaper says that the breach also includes users who set all their information to be completely private. And in some cases, it says, the apps provided access to friends' names. A Facebook spokesman told the Journal on Sunday that the company would introduce new technology to contain the breach. It's not clear how long the breach went on. The paper says Facebook also has taken immediate action to disable all applications that violated their terms. Most apps are made by independent software companies, not by Facebook.


The U.S. government is reviewing an Australian program that will allow internet service providers to alert customers if their computers are taken over by hackers. It could limit online access if people don't fix the problem. Obama administration officials have been meeting with industry leaders and experts to find ways to increase online safety. They are trying to strike a balance between securing the internet and guarding Americans' privacy and civil liberties. Cyber experts and U.S. officials say they are interested in portions of the plan slated to go into effect in Australia in December. But any move toward internet regulation or monitoring by the U.S. government or industry could trigger fierce opposition from the public.


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