Wednesday August 3rd, 2005

Valero Energy to stop producing gasoline with MTBE additive...ISM non-manufacturing figures down slightly...Texas sales tax holiday on most clothing and shoes opens Friday...

Valero Energy will stop producing the gasoline additive MTBE because energy legislation passed by Congress leaves the company open to legal liability. That cuts about six percent of the gasoline output of the San Antonio-based refiner. Congress last week passed an energy bill that excludes a provision shielding refiners from product-liability lawsuits related to MTBE contamination in groundwater. MTBE is an oxygenate that makes fuel burn more completely and cuts down air pollution, but several states have banned the additive after it leaked from storage tanks into underground water wells.


Business activity in the services sector of the economy grew in July. The Institute for Supply Management says its non-manufacturing report came in with a reading of 60.5 percent. That's down from the June reading and reflects weaker growth than expected. Any reading above 50 indicates growth. The ISM's Ralph Kauffman from the University of Houston-Downtown says non-manufacturing business activity increased for the 28th consecutive month. Employment activity in the non-manufacturing sector increased at a slower rate in July compared to June. When it comes to inflation, prices paid by non-manufacturing organizations for materials and services increased in July for the 26th consecutive month and at a significantly faster rate of increase than in June.


Goddard Investment Group's acquisition of Heritage Plaza and two adjacent tracts of land for parking garages, according to the latest Houston Office Performance Update from O'Connor & Associates, will reposition the skyscraper's attractiveness in the Central Business District. The report says owners, brokers and analysts are, for the most part, optimistic about continued job growth, increased demand for office space and an overall greater performance by the office market.


The Enron debacle took a toll on the bottom line at Credit Suisse Group. The Switzerland-based financial services company says its second-quarter profit fell 37 percent because it set aside funds for future legal action involving the fallen energy trader. The bank earned $720 million for the April-June quarter. It set aside $489 million for future legal charges. Sales for the second quarter rose three percent to $11 billion. The second-quarter profit figure was slightly lower than analysts' expectations, particularly in the group's private banking business.


Kustom Kleen of Texas has agreed to pay $660,000 in back pay to 766 janitorial workers, according to the U. S. Department of Labor. The Pearland-based firm is accused of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay overtime to employees for two years. The company is also accused of failing to keep required payroll records. Kustom Kleen provides cleaning services for Target, HEB and 24-Hour Fitness Centers.

Janitors ended their walkout against ABM last week after the company agreed to resolve issues affecting how company supervisors treated employees, but a prayer vigil for the janitors was held this afternoon at Houston Center Mall at Fannin and McKinney. Houston janitors who work for ABM and other companies are uniting with the Service Employees International Union.


The Texas sales tax holiday on most clothing and shoes under $100 opens Friday and runs through Sunday. It's just in time as parents get ready to send their children back to school. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn today touted this weekend's tax-saving shopping--and took aim at those who seek to increase the state sales tax to pay for public schools. Strayhorn is challenging Governor Rick Perry for the 2006 Republican nomination for governor. Perry and some lawmakers have suggested closing business tax loopholes, raising the cigarette tax and upping the sales tax to replace reduced school property taxes. Legislators are in their second special session of the summer to tackle school finance, but prospects for a solution in this 30-day session look dim.


TXU Corporation may ask customers for a second rate increase this year due to rising natural gas prices. That's after the Dallas-based electric utility company reaped a $375 million second-quarter profit and as it heads into its most profitable time of the year. The State Public Utility Commission granted TXU a ten percent rate increase in May. But company officials say the ongoing rise in natural gas prices has made their retail electricity business unprofitable. Chairman and Chief Executive John Wilder mentioned the possibility of higher electricity rates in a conference call with analysts yesterday. Rivals such as Reliant have targeted TXU's north Texas electricity customers with rebate offers and no price increases for two years. TXU has lost customers who switched to other providers. Wilder, however, says TXU is struggling to make money on its retail electricity business and does so only by aggressively dropping customers who fall behind on their payments. Overall, TXU swung to a second-quarter profit because of strong results in its power transmission and electricity-generation operations. For the three months ended June 30th, revenue rose eight percent.


Houston-based Everest has launched its funeral counseling service, functioning as an independent advisor, providing unbiased information about funeral options. The company serves as a liaison between the family and the funeral home of their choice. Everest does not sell funeral goods or services, or receive commissions from funeral homes or other service providers. The service is available through insurance agents or online.


Rowan Companies has been awarded a term drilling contract by Saudi ARAMCO for five jack-up drilling rigs. The units will begin operating offshore Saudi Arabia by March or April 2006. The rigs are currently operating in the Gulf of Mexico.


A Brazoria County jury heard today from the stepdaughter of a north Texas man whose death his family alleges was caused by the painkiller Vioxx. The testimony came in the nation's first trial of a Vioxx-related liability suit. Shawna Sherrill recalled for the jury the May 2001 death of Robert Ernst. She testified that the night her stepfather died, "we lost my mom, too.'' Sherrill says Carol Ernst is ``a shell of a person now.'' Robert Ernst was a 59-year-old Wal-Mart produce manager, marathon runner and personal trainer who took Vioxx for eight months to ease pain in his hands until he died in his sleep. Carol Ernst contends Vioxx caused her husband's death. But Vioxx-maker Merck denies responsibility for Ernst's death. Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last September when a study showed it could double heart attack or stroke risks if taken for 18 months or longer. But Merck cites an autopsy report that Ernst died of an irregular heartbeat-to which it says Vioxx hasn't been linked.


Hundreds of ready-to-shop customers stood in line to get in as IKEA today opened its first store in the Dallas area. The 310,000-square-foot home furnishings store in Frisco drew people from hundreds of miles away--and even some shoppers from Mexico. The complex has one floor of furniture, another of home accessories, a cafeteria featuring Swedish food and about 1,400 parking spaces. IKEA's only other Texas store is here in Houston.


Companies are being invited to present their business ventures at the upcoming third annual Rice Alliance Energy Technology Venture Forum on September 30th. The deadline for applying to present is August 19th. Last year's forum drew over 450 attendees, with several past presenting companies subsequently raising outside funding.


courtesy of U. S. Department of CommerceξThe official export magazine of the U. S. Department of Commerce features Texas in a special Chinese language edition being distributed in China. Commercial News USA is being distributed in partnership with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade to more than 10,000 Chinese business executives and policymakers, and will be available at industry trade shows throughout China. According to the Commerce Department, the magazine generated 872 successful export transactions in 2003, resulting in more than $109 million in sales.


Students from the Middle College for Technology Careers and North Houston High School for business are taking part in the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies Program coordinated by the Jesse H. Jones School of Business at Texas Southern University. The program creates a link between 10th- through 12th-grade classroom learning and the challenges students will face in college and in the workplace.


The Fondren Foundation has committed $300,000 toward the construction of a national biocontainment research laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. UTMB received a $110 million grant in 2003 from the National Institute of allergy and Infectious Diseases to build on of two national biocontainment labs for research into pathogens. Local matches in the range of $57 million are needed. The Brown Foundation of Houston and the Robert and Helen Kleberg Foundation of San Antonio are also contributing funds.


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