Thursday December 1st, 2005

Online job demand index reaches highest-ever level...After denying participating in Energy Task Force, oil industry executives acknowledge frequent company contacts with government officials to discuss energy issues...

Recruitment in a variety of industries and occupations has pushed an online index of hiring to its highest level ever. An official at Monster Worldwide says his company's Monster Employment Index indicates businesses are "more confident about the strength of the economy.'' He says companies are hiring based on the prediction of continued growth. The company says hiring in the retail and wholesale trade industries for the year-end holiday season played a major role in job growth. In addition to the retail and wholesale trade industries, there was strong recruitment in the utilities sector, and heightened demand for computer and mathematical workers. Strongest online demand for workers came in the region hit by Hurricane Katrina as New Orleans employers stepped up recruitment to get up and running again. Monster is an internet jobs and careers site.

The Labor Department says new claims for jobless benefits fell by 17,000 last week to 320,000. That number has been watched closely in recent months for indications about trends in the job market, in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes. The number of hurricane-related job losses totaled 9,600 last week. That means the total number of Americans who have lost their jobs because of Katrina, Rita and Wilma stands at 592,000. Tomorrow morning, the government reports on the November employment situation. Analysts look for the unemployment rate to remain steady at five percent, with 200,000 jobs added to payrolls.


A generally steady showing for the nation's manufacturing sector is reported by purchasing executives. The November manufacturing index from the Institute for Supply Management is reported at 58.1, down one point from the previous month. Any number above 50 indicates growth. New orders and production continued to drive manufacturing. The group says while energy costs and supply interruptions remain a worry, they're generally pleased with current business conditions. The group's prices-paid index, a measure of inflation pressure, was down ten points from October.


The outlook for holiday shopping remains a question after retailers reported a mixed start to the holiday season. Some consumers were willing to spend only when they found a bargain. As merchants released their results, the winners appear to be those that heavily discounted over the Thanksgiving weekend, including Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney. One of the biggest disappointments was upscale Nordstrom. Analyst Ken Perkins of Retail Metrics says "overall, department stores took it on the chin.'' Federated Department Stores, which closed the purchase of rival May Department Stores in August, suffered a nearly 3.5 percent decline in same store sales.


Personal spending rose just modestly in October, in a report that may well be regarded as old news in the markets. Analysts and retailers are hoping rising consumer confidence and dropping gasoline prices will produce further recovery. The Commerce Department reports personal spending rose two-tenths of one percent in October. Incomes rose four-tenths in October after two months in which that indicator of business health had been skewed by the impact of the property destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Economists believe an improving jobs picture will bolster incomes further in the months ahead, putting consumers in a shopping mood for the holiday season. Indeed, today's November sales data reported by major chains seems to suggest improvement is being seen.


The Commerce Department says that construction spending rose a solid seven-tenths of one percent in October to a new record high. The total was a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than a trillion dollars. The better-than-expected gain follows a more modest two-tenths of one percent September increase. It was propelled by a six-tenths rise in residential construction and a 1.1 percent jump in public construction. Both rose to record highs. Building is expected to slow in coming months as rising mortgage rates dampen the red-hot housing market.


Five oil industry executives acknowledge frequent company contacts with government officials to discuss energy issues, but insist they responded truthfully at a recent Senate hearing when they denied participating in Vice President Dick Cheney's 2001 Energy Task Force. A report published a few days after the November 9th hearing found that White House logs showed representatives of some of the companies had visited task force officials. Houston-based ConocoPhillips Chairman James Mulva told Senators he and his company did not participate in the Cheney task force, but has since learned that Conoco Chairman Archie Dunham and another Conoco official attended a task force meeting in 2001. Conoco and Phillips Petroleum had not yet merged into ConocoPhillips, and Mulva says he never discussed the task force with Dunham. Houston-based Shell Oil Chairman John Hofmeister says Shell representatives did not meet with the task force, but Shell representatives met with the administration, including the vice president and his staff, on a broad range of energy issues.


Testimony continued in Houston today in the first federal trial of a Vioxx-related lawsuit. Yesterday, doctors and "Dicky'' Irvin's two children testified on whether Vioxx contributed to the St. Augustine, Florida, man's death. Doctor Colin Bloor testified on behalf of the widow who's suing Merck. The pathologist said the Merck painkiller helped cause a blood clot that triggered Irvin's fatal heart attack in 2001. But a lawyer for Merck said Bloor, professor emeritus for pathology at the University of California-San Diego, is not a Vioxx expert. Both Richard Eugene Irvin and Lesley Irvin Goldstein described their dad as a caring family man who was in good health. The federal jury also saw a videotaped deposition by Merck's President for Human Health. David Anstice denied that Merck rushed Vioxx to the market. But he conceded that Merck never conducted specific studies to examine Vioxx's cardiovascular risks.

Merck says it's shutting down some of its operations in Japan and will also be eliminating jobs in England and New Jersey. That will bring to nearly 2,000 the number of job cuts detailed so far in a sweeping, Merck reorganization plan. Merck plans to eliminate 250 of its 4,300 jobs at its plant in Rahway, New Jersey. In Japan, a subsidiary will close a factory and a lab, wiping out about 300 jobs. In England, about 330 of Merck's 1,900 jobs will be eliminated. Merck earlier announced plans to close or sell five of its 31 manufacturing plants, including facilities in Albany, Georgia, and Riverside, Pennsylvania.


Southwest Airlines is wasting no time launching direct air service from Dallas Love Field to Missouri. The Dallas-based airline announced today that it'll begin flights from Love to St. Louis and Kansas City on December 13th. American Airlines plans to challenge Southwest on those same routes. Southwest's announcement comes a day after President Bush signed a transportation bill that includes a provision to make Missouri the ninth state that airlines can serve from Love. The measure will exempt Missouri from restrictions of the Wright Amendment, which bars long-haul flights from Love Field. The decades-old Wright Amendment was enacted to bolster Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in its early years. Southwest, which calls Love Field home, wants the Wright Amendment lifted. American, which is based at DFW Airport, has three idle gates at Love Field and can operate Missouri service from those areas. Southwest said Thursday it would operate four daily nonstop flights from Dallas to St. Louis and four to Kansas City. Southwest said it would charge $79 each way for tickets bought 14 days in advance and $129 each way for other tickets. Analysts say Southwest's new service would mostly hurt American by taking away customers and forcing it to cut fares on flights to Missouri.


Hewlett-Packard has filed a lawsuit in Tyler federal court alleging that former employees stole confidential company technology. The suit claims the high-level employees used company secrets to organize a competing business venture, potentially bilking HP out of more than $100 million. The suit names former employees Karl Kamb Jr., Marc McEachern, William Taffel and David Thorson as defendants. They worked under confidentiality agreements as managers, directors and consultants. The suit also names J. Brian Dennison, Katsumi Iizuka and Poojitha Preena as alleged co-conspirators. The company says the former workers began planning a consumer electronics enterprise in late 2002 to design, develop, manufacture and sell Asian products that they were supposed to develop for HP. The suit claims that the employees stole business opportunities from HP and amassed a multimillion-dollar enterprise in just two years.


A survey confirms a capsized barge that's leaked oil into the Gulf of Mexico was damaged after hitting a platform sunk by Hurricane Rita. The barge was en route from Houston to Tampa, Florida, on November 10th when it struck the platform about 100 miles east of Galveston. The platform owned by Targa Midstream Services sank during Hurricane Rita, which made landfall September 24th near Sabine Pass. The Coast Guard says the company located the platform and marked it with unlit buoys. Most of the leaked oil is on the ocean floor. No oil has reached the Texas or Louisiana coasts. The situation is being monitored. Crews have off-loaded more than 400,000 gallons of oil from the barge, which will be salvaged.


New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Congressman John McHugh appealed to Dallas-based Greyhound Bus Lines to continue certain routes. They're urging the company to reconsider its plans to end service to upstate New York's north country in about three months. Greyhound this week announced it would cancel all service north of Syracuse--effective February 22nd. The company cited low ridership for its decision. Also, Clinton and McHugh wrote New York Governor George Pataki, urging the state to provide additional assistance to the bus line to continue service. Greyhound officials defended the decision and said it will stand. New York Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tiffany Galvin said the agency has started looking for a company to fill the void.


Houston-based real estate investment group Metro Hospitality Partners has purchased the nine-story Park Plaza Hotel near Reliant Park, planning a renovation, according to the Houston Chronicle. The property at Kirby and South Loop will be renamed for the fifth time in its history, as the Houston Grand Plaza Hotel. Two smaller hotels nearby that are no longer in operation were also sold.


Twelve Oaks Medical Center celebrated its 40th anniversary today. Twelve Oaks Hospital provides health care at its River Oaks campus off the Southwest Freeway at Weslayan Drive and its Sharpstown campus on Bellaire Boulevard. In addition to Twelve Oaks Hospital, the River Oaks campus includes the 17-story Twelve Oaks Medical Tower and 11-story garage. The center was acquired in 2003 by a newly-creaed partnership led by Houston physicians and North Carolina-based Hospital Partners of America.


Defense contractor DRS Technologies announced it's secured an $18 million contract from Raytheon. The company will produce more precise infrared equipment for use on some models of the army's M2A3 Bradley fighting vehicles and M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks. The work for the night vision and thermal imaging equipment will be done by the company's DRS Infrared Technologies unit in Dallas. Product deliveries are expected to begin next month. New Jersey-based DRS employs about 6,000 people worldwide.


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