Monday PM December 20th, 2010

Shoppers came out in droves on the last weekend before Christmas, tackling their gift lists and driving traffic up at malls across the country. Weather caused no major problems a week after an intense snowstorm blanketed the Midwest and caused many malls to close early. Discounts, though not as steep as last year, were rampant. And shoppers responded to them. The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, the nation's largest mall, as well as mall operators Jones Lang LaSalle and Taubman Centers all reported higher mall traffic. The Saturday before Christmas is known as “Super Saturday,” among retailers, and it's one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Research firm ShopperTrak expects it will be the third-busiest this year. It's a crucial weekend for retailers, because after a strong November, December sales have tapered off.

Advance reservations are not required for the latest energy-efficient appliance rebate program in Texas offering more than $18 million in federal stimulus funds. The program that began today involves a traditional mail-in rebate system for residential customers. The State Comptroller's Office, which is administering the program, says about $10 million in unclaimed rebate funds from April's first program are available, plus $8.5 million from unused public sector energy efficiency funds. Problems arose during the first rebate program when the online reservation systems and phone lines were swamped. Rebate-eligible appliances are air-source heat pumps, central air conditioners, clothes washers, dishwashers, freezers, refrigerators, room air conditioners and water heaters.

A study by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs' office shows the state is paying too much to attract major economic development projects, particularly farms of wind-powered electric generators. A state law allows school districts to provide tax incentives to recruit such projects. Those breaks have helped the state to attract industries with significant employment, Combs wrote, but it has also been “increasingly used to over-incentivize projects that create few or no jobs.” About two-thirds of the 98 projects that have won the tax breaks are the so-called “wind farms,” the Austin American-Statesman reports in Sunday's editions. The report shows that the cost per job is 40 times what the state spends on projects that earn grants from the Texas Enterprise Fund.

The head of the Federal Communications Commission has enough support to pass controversial new rules that will prohibit phone and cable companies from discriminating against or favoring internet traffic flowing over their broadband networks. More than a year after FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pledged to put in place so-called ”network neutrality” regulations, the agency is poised to adopt those rules at a meeting on Tuesday. Although the two Republicans who sit on the five-member commission are firmly opposed to the plan, Genachowski's two Democratic colleagues have both said they will vote to let the proposal pass. Those two Democrats, Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps, have both said they still have reservations about the rules, however.

The twice-monthly Lundberg Survey finds the price of regular gasoline has risen nearly eight cents a gallon to $2.99. The price of mid-grade gasoline is now $3.12 a gallon and premium is $3.23 a gallon, according to analyst Trilby Lundberg. The U.S. average for diesel was $3.29. Lundberg says the highest gas price in the country was recorded in San Francisco at $3.29 a gallon. The low, $2.68, was in Denver. The national increase for regular was 7.59 cents a gallon. Diesel fuel went up 6.24 cents a gallon. But average retail gasoline prices in Houston have held mostly steady, dropping 0.1 cents per gallon in the past week, according to the web site, averaging $2.78 per gallon.

Chevrolets are returning to DeMontrond on the Gulf Freeway in Texas City. In 2008, the bankruptcy of General Motors nearly eliminated DeMontrond Chevrolet. GM notified 1,100 of its 6,000 dealerships that it was terminating their contracts--the first step in cutting up to 40 percent of its retail network. George DeMontrond credits the successful reinstatement of the right to sell Chevrolets to the unwavering determination of the team at the dealership, as well as the vocal support of the communities surrounding that outlet. Inventory has been arriving daily.

Boom from the BP oil spill is getting a new charge from the maker of the Chevrolet Volt electric car. General Motors says that instead of going to landfills, roughly 100 miles of plastic boom material will be converted into vehicle parts. The parts deflect air around the vehicle's radiator. The Volt, a compact car, can go about 35 miles on battery power before a gasoline engine kicks in to generate electricity. At the height of the oil spill, more than 2,550 miles of boom was used in the Gulf of Mexico to try to keep oil from reaching shore. Today, response officials say only a mile of boom is being used. Tens of thousands of tons of boom and oily debris have made their way to landfills or incinerators.

United Continental says customers inconvenienced by delays and cancellations of flights in Europe can change flights online for no fee. Winter weather conditions have been affecting flights to and from London, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Brussels and Amsterdam airports this week.

Continental and Spanair are beginning codesharing on Atlantic flights and to destinations in Africa effective January 4th, 2011. Both airlines are members of Star Alliance.

Houston-based CITGO Petroleum has made eight cargo deliveries to help Venezuelan flood victims, with more than 450 tons of supplies to help 40,000 people. President Hugo Chavez and Energy and Petroleum Minister Rafael Ramirez directly requested the equipment and materials. Citgo has been purchasing the requested items, including 7,000 tents, 20,000 cots, 10,000 bunk beds and blankets and pillows, as well as 2,500 AM/FM radios/flashlights and power generators. CITGO is a subsidiary of the national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela.

Twenty-six new governors will take office amid the worst budget climate for states in a generation. Many of them are promising not to raise taxes, even though states face a cumulative budget shortfall of $140 billion next year. State lawmakers across the country have been cutting budgets for the past few years because of the poor economy. So when new governors take office in states like New York, California, South Carolina and Nevada, they will find the era of easy fixes long gone. Polling suggests voters don't want states to cut education and health care, even though those programs eat up a majority of most states' budgets. The situation will worsen when funds from the federal government's $800 billion stimulus plan dry up next year.

The Senate has passed a sweeping bill to make food safer, sending it to the House in the waning days of Congress. This is the second time the Senate has passed the bill, which would give the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food. The chamber passed the bill for the first time three weeks ago, but it was caught in a constitutional snag when Senators mistakenly included tax provisions that are by law supposed to originate in the House. The version of the legislation passed by the Senate on Sunday is amended to avoid another such mishap. The $1.4 billion bill would place stricter standards on imported foods and require larger producers to follow tougher rules for keeping food safe.

AT&T is buying nearly $2 billion worth of broadcast spectrum from Qualcomm to ramp up its high-speed, next-generation 4G network. Qualcomm, based in San Diego, has used the spectrum for its Flo TV service, which allows subscribers to watch TV on cell phones. Qualcomm will shut down the service in March thanks to weak interest from consumers. In the latest quarter, running Flo TV cost the company $132 million. It can use the $1.92 billion from the sale to help with its turnaround. The spectrum Dallas-based AT&T is buying covers 70 million people in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco, along with 230 million people in the rest of the country.

Chevron Nigeria says one of its oil pipelines was blown, two days after militants claimed an attack in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta. Chevron says that its Dibi-Abiteye pipeline in Delta state was hit on Friday. The Niger Delta Liberation Force, led by a militant calling himself John Togo, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement sent Saturday. The group demanded the withdrawal of troops from Ayokomor, the community where the military launched a December 1st operation to apprehend Togo, causing civilian casualties. Militants in the restive region have attacked pipelines, kidnapped petroleum company employees and fought government troops since 2006. Nigeria is one of the top crude oil suppliers to the U.S.

An effort to kill an invasive plant by releasing bugs that eat it has drawn the ire of some beekeepers in Michigan. They say the plant provides an important source of nectar and pollen to keep honeybees productive and healthy. Researchers released insects in Michigan this year to see if their feasting would help control spotted knapweed. The plant produces chemicals that deter the growth of other plants and crowds out native vegetation. Western states and big midwest honey producers like Minnesota and Wisconsin have previously used bugs to kill knapweed. It's unclear why the method is drawing such opposition in Michigan and not elsewhere. Michigan officials say they're looking at ways to use native flowers as a replacement for knapweed. Michigan is among the nation's top ten honey producers.

This is a data-compressed week for the financial markets, all packed into Wednesday and Thursday. Among the readings due are those on revised economic growth, new and existing home sales, personal income and spending and new jobless claims.

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