Thursday January 19th, 2006

Texas Business & Education Coalition calls for attracting more students to science and math courses...Commerce Department notes slowdown last month in new home construction...Governor declares statewide drought disaster; asks for government relief for Texas farms and ranches...

The Texas Business Leaders Confidence Index bounced back in the first quarter of 2006 with overall confidence increasing 5.2 points to 62.1 on a scale of 0 to 100. Economic concerns surrounding Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have waned. Texas business leaders indicate a cautiously optimistic outlook of the national economy. Panelists are more optimistic of the state's economic future, with an increase of 7.7 component index points to 66.7--the second largest gain in state economy optimism since the survey's inception. Sales expectations moved up 1.8 points to 64.1, although sales confidence hasn't fully recovered to pre-hurricane levels. And Texas business leaders continue to show more confidence in the state's job growth. The index is compiled by Compass Bank and the Universities of Texas and Colorado.


Business and education leaders in Houston today heard about how the state of Texas is falling behind in the teaching of science and math courses. The Texas Business & Education Coalition says a continuation of the downward trend could create a potentially debilitating impact on the local economy. CenterPoint Energy's Lucretia Ahrens says Texas needs to increase the number of students completing science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.

"Texas has a unique set of challenges. Like California, we are a minority-majority population. Our state demographer tells us that over the next 40 years, Texas is going to change dramatically. Our workforce is going to look very different from what it does today. We are working with a population that may not speak the language when they enter school. Parents have more limited education. I think our job as educators today is to reach out to families to convince them that there is a future for their children, and to work together to make sure it happens. We have got to do a better job of keeping kids in school and educating them with those skill sets that they're going to need to be successful."

Ahrens says the group wants to see a stronger link between public education and the skill set necessary to meet the state's future workforce needs.

"We have an aging workforce. Many, like myself, will be retiring over the next few years, though we're very concerned about where that next generation of computer technicians, of scientists, of engineers and mathematicians are going to come from. And we have to do a better job of recruiting students early on, and convincing them that there are great careers waiting for them if they will prepare themselves for success beyond high school."

Ahrens says corporations are interested in cultivating the next generation of workers.

"At NASA JSC, for example, they tell me that the average engineer is 57. Those are probably not going to be the people who will take us to Mars. You know, in my company probably two-thirds of our managers are eligible to retire in the next five years. So we have to groom that next generation who will take our place, and we realize that that isn't going to happen without our getting directly involved in the school systems at Higher Ed, as well as pre-K to 12 education."

Texas ranks among the lowest in the nation in standardized test scores in science.


Enron prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Sim Lake that even Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling acknowledge that there are at least 70 potential jurors who have not shown any bias. They say that means there's no reason to move the January 30th trial away from Houston. Prosecutors say the government will take about nine weeks to present its case, assuming that cross-examination is equal in time to the government questioning of each witness.


Entergy Corporation said today its damages from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita totaled $1.5 billion. The New Orleans-based utility holding company also predicts its fourth-quarter earnings will drop from a year ago. Entergy says it expects lower earnings per share, mostly due to hurricane-related customer outages. Entergy said its Entergy Louisiana service area took the biggest hit with $510 million in damage, followed by Entergy Gulf States Texas with $380 million. Its Entergy New Orleans unit, which is in bankruptcy, took $275 million in damage. Entergy Gulf States Louisiana had $195 million, and Entergy Mississippi $120 million. Entergy said the damage estimates were likely not final since the company was pursuing insurance payments, rate increases and federal assistance to recover the cost of storm damage. Entergy will take a 12-cents-per-share charge for its decision to pursue the sale of its competitive retail power business. The company said it would offer earnings guidance for 2006 when it formally reports its fourth-quarter results January 31st.


U.S. Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson wants to protect hurricane evacuees from being victimized more as they look for a place to live. Jackson stopped in Houston today and announced an advertising campaign designed to inform evacuees of fair housing laws. Jackson also reminds landlords that discrimination against hurricane evacuees is illegal. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August, forcing several hundred thousand Louisiana residents to flee. Rita made landfall September 24th in southeast Texas. Authorities believe about 150,000 hurricane evacuees remain in the Houston area. The public service announcements are for television, radio, newspapers and magazines. HUD officials have received 87 allegations of housing discrimination from evacuees since Katrina--including 14 in Houston.


There's word of a slowdown last month in new home construction. The Commerce Department reports housing starts dropped 8.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than 1.9 million units. 2005 saw a record in construction of new single-family homes. The number of total starts, which includes apartments, was the second-highest ever. A gauge of future construction, building permits, fell 4.4 percent in December.


Fort Worth-based homebuilder D.R. Horton today posted a 29-percent higher first-quarter profit, citing on improved sales and margins. The nation's largest homebuilder also boosted its fiscal-year earnings guidance. Quarterly earnings totaled $310.1 million. Revenue rose 15 percent to $2.84 billion, and homebuilding operating margin improved to 16.9 percent.


The head of Cuba's food import company today promised to double the amount of Cuba-bound cargo heading through Corpus Christi by year's end. The announcement from Alimport Chairman Pedro Alvarez came after an agreement was signed with port officials to deepen the commercial ties. The planned intensification comes as some Gulf of Mexico ports such as New Orleans and Gulfport, Mississippi, still struggle after Hurricane Katrina. Alvarez says New Orleans continues to be one of Cuba's top ports, along with Houston and Galveston. Officials say about 55,000 tons of wheat and 22,000 tons of beans were shipped through the Corpus Christi port to Cuba last year. Port Commission Chairman Ruben Bonilla, Jr., says the Corpus Christi port has the ability to export any commodity needed by the Cuban people.


A Dallas-area company that offers military support services overseas has had 26 employees killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003. Three died this week. The latest losses for Irving-based Dyncorps International came yesterday, when an improvised explosive device hit a convoy. Killed were Richard Thomas Hickman of Cave Spring, Georgia, and Roland Carroll Barvels of Aberdeen, South Dakota. Both were members of Dyncorp's police training mission. Another officer was killed in Iraq on Monday. The company has also lost five workers in Afghanistan since March of 2003. Dyncorp officials said they couldn't answer detailed questions about their operations because the company is about to go public. Dyncorp began as an aviation company in 1946. It now offers a range of military and civilian support services.


U.S. oil supplies are rising in all three categories--crude oil, gasoline and distillates. The Energy Department says domestic crude-oil inventories grew by 2.7 million barrels last week to 321.4 million barrels, or 12 percent above year-ago levels. Gasoline inventories expanded by 2.8 million barrels to 211.6 million barrels, or three percent below year ago levels. The supply of distillate, which includes heating oil and diesel, increased by 900,000 barrels to 134.7 million barrels, or eight percent above last year. Energy futures prices have been mixed following this latest petroleum supply snapshot. But the market remains tense over the Iranian nuclear dispute and political unrest in Nigeria.


There are fewer people needing to get in line at the unemployment office. The Labor Department says the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell 36,000 last week to 271,000. With claims at the lowest level since April 2000, the report suggests that the job market is firm. Analysts had been looking for claims to rise. The four-week moving average fell 12,000 to 299,000, the lowest since late 2000.


Governor Rick Perry today declared a statewide drought disaster and asked for government relief for Texas farms and ranches. Federal approval of Perry's request would make qualified farms and ranches in all 254 Texas counties eligible for low-interest emergency loans. Perry, since early summer, had asked for assistance for 113 drought-stricken counties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's farm service agency has approved requests for 54 counties. Perry says he's now asking for approval of federal assistance for statewide agriculture because of sever drought conditions. Qualified producers can borrow up to 100 percent of their actual production for physical losses--up to $500,000. The USDA agency also offers other help to eligible farmers--including technical assistance.


Tenet Healthcare announced today it'll restate financial results for five years because of errors in accounting on managed-care contracts. The Dallas-based hospital operator says the restatements would change profit or losses in specific years by three to nine percent. But the cumulative effect appears to be nearly a wash--except for an income tax charge of $47 million for 2004. Tenet says the move follows a Securities and Exchange Commission request to investigate an ex-employee's charges of improper allowances on managed-care contracts at three California hospitals. Tenet says some reserves that had been recorded will be reversed, and some revenue and expenses will be recognized sooner than originally reported.


Stock of crude-oil refiner Western Refining climbed in its first day as a public company. The company sold 22.5 million shares at the high end of the expected price range set by underwriters. That's 3.75 million more than originally planned. Shares were added to the deal from current owners, including the chief executive, so those proceeds won't go to the company. Dahlman Rose industry analyst Ann Kohler says Western Refining is operating in a particularly attractive segment of the energy market. She says there's great demand for refined products in the United States, but limited new capacity to produce more. Western Refining receives its crude-oil supplies from the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico delivers its products to Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona. With its inland operations, it's not as vulnerable as Gulf Coast refiners to hurricanes and other weather-related interruptions.


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