Monday January 23rd, 2006

Gasoline prices continue climbing...Houston job recruitment remains steady, according to online activity...Ford cutting up to 30,000 jobs, idling 14 plants by 2012...Cal Dive International paying $1.4 billion for Remington Oil and Gas...

Retail gas prices have jumped another three cents nationwide, following a nine-cent hike earlier this month. The Lundberg Survey finds the weighted average price for all three grades of gas climbed to $2.36 a gallon Friday. Self-serve regular now averages $2.33 per gallon. Prices at the pump have gone up nearly 20 cents since December 2nd--and are 45 cents higher than they were a year ago. Among stations surveyed, the lowest average price for regular unleaded was in Portland, Oregon, and the priciest gas was in Honolulu.


Online job recruitment activity and related employment opportunities in the Houston area held steady in December, according to the Monster Local Employment Index.

"December is traditionally a month where we see seasonal slowdowns in the hiring process, so I think this bodes well for the Houston labor market as well as for job seekers."

Steve Pogorzelski with Monster Worldwide says there are several areas of particular growth.

"Strong employer demand for IT professionals, manufacturing workers and laborers to support the expansion in industrial construction. Legal also jumped up considerably--it went up eight points in December. We also saw a strong increase in the life, physical and social science occupations, which would point to a growing biotech sector in the Houston market. It's up four points since the inception of the index in May. Moreover, it was up three points in December, which really defied kind of the seasonal slowdown we would see in those types of occupations. We also saw growth in arts and new media, as well as sports economy. We see IT, engineering, construction and transportation to be very high in Houston compared to the rest of the country. "

Monster provides a monthly analysis of online job demand, counting job postings as an indicator of job availability.

"The Monster Local Employment Index looks at over 1,500 Web sites across the United States, which encompasses millions of jobs that have been posted by employers. Then we simply take a snapshot of each of the Top 28 local markets to develop a local employment index."

Houston online job demand increased in half of Monster's occupational categories, and decreased by varying degrees or remained flat in the other half.


A survey of the nation's top private economists finds that growth and inflation pressures have been on the rise. The National Association for Business Economics survey also finds that hiring plans for the next six months remain robust. Lead analyst for the survey, Jim Meil of Eaton Corporation, says the biggest surprise is that last year's devastating hurricanes didn't have more impact on the national economy. With inflation pressures seen on the rise, Meil says there is a risk that the Federal Reserve will want to keep hiking interest rates more than is widely expected. The Fed's next meeting is scheduled for the end of this month, the last meeting where Alan Greenspan will be chairman.


Ford says it will cut up to 30,000 jobs and idle 14 plants by the year 2012. The restructuring announced by CEO Bill Ford is aimed at stemming huge losses in the number-two automaker's North American operations. Ford says the company's focus has to be on building cars that consumers want, noting the automaker was slow to shift its product mix away from gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles. The cuts represent up to a-quarter of ford's North American work force of 122,000 people. Ford has approximately 87,000 hourly workers and 35,000 salaried workers in the region. Plants to be idled through 2008 include St. Louis, Atlanta and Wixom, Michigan, assembly plants and Batavia Transmission in Ohio. Windsor Casting in Ontario also will be idled, previously announced following contract negotiations with the Canadian auto workers. Another two assembly plants to be idled will be determined later this year.


Cal Dive International today agreed to pay $1.4 billion for Dallas-based Remington Oil and Gas, which has holdings in the Gulf of Mexico. Houston-based Cal Dive builds and runs offshore platforms and pipelines in deep areas of the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea and the Asia-Pacific region. It also helps other companies drill and operate underwater wells. The offer--in cash and stock--represented a 22 percent premium over Remington's closing stock price Friday.


The nation's second-largest grocery chain is being sold. A group including grocery parent Supervalu and drug retailer CVS has agreed to buy Albertson's for more than $17 billion in cash, stock and debt assumption. Supervalu, of Minneapolis, says the deal would triple its retail operations, making it the second-largest supermarket company in the U.S. with 2,600 stores after it adds about 1,100 stores. CVS will acquire Albertson's stand-alone drugstore business, which includes about 700 stores and related real estate. Another group led by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management will buy stores in Dallas-Fort Worth, northern California, Florida, the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest. That group plans to operate the stores under the Albertson's name. Traditional grocers have been facing pressure from larger discount competitors like Costco and Wal-Mart stores as well as upscale rivals like Trader Joe's and Austin-based Whole Foods. Albertson's announced in September that it was putting itself up for sale.


Hurricane evacuees still in hotels paid for by the federal government have until next Monday to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get an authorization code. Acting FEMA Director David Paulison says his agency will stop paying for hotel rooms on February 7th unless evacuees register by January 30th. Paulison says the government will cover hotel lodging for evacuees with a code until at least February 13th, and perhaps longer depending on the status of their temporary housing applications. Paulison says evacuees with applications that aren't processed by next Monday will have their hotels rooms paid for until March 1st, or for two weeks after the date of processing, whichever is later. Evacuees can register by calling 1-800-621-FEMA.


Contributions to help victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes has surpassed giving in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The Non Profit Times reports that $2.96 billion so far collected is believed to be a record for U.S. private philanthropic giving for a single disaster. The true total value of contributions may never be fully known as people provided one-on-one, direct assistance to individuals and groups. More than 250 individuals, corporations or foundations made contributions of at least $1 million for hurricane victims. Twenty of those were in excess of $20 million, including $32 million in cash and products from Wal-Mart and its Wal-Mart Foundation.


A Garland liquidation store is selling faucets, furniture and other items salvaged from storm-ravaged retailers in the Gulf Coast. The merchandise was bought by Michigan-based National Retail Equipment Liquidators from insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina's devastating August landfall and then redistributed. While some items show evidence of the storm, some products remain pristine.


The former director of the Enron Task Force is joining the New York office of Jenner & Block in March as a partner. Andrew Weissmann will focus on internal corporate compliance and investigations. Weissmann stopped down from the Enron Task Force last August to become special counsel to FBI Director Robert Mueller. The Task Force to date has indicted over 30 people in connection with the Enron scandal. Weissmann spearheaded the prosecutions and convictions of Andrew Fastow, Richard Causey and Ben Glisan of Enron. Former Chairman Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling go on trial next week. Weissmann led the prosecution of Arthur Andersen, which was convicted of obstruction of justice for destroying Enron documents as investigators began probing the firm's finances in October and November 2001. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction in May 2005, citing vague jury instructions.


Texas is part of a nationwide settlement with Ameriquest Mortgage as it plans to reform its lending practices. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today announced the overall $325 million deal. He says thousands of affected homeowners in Texas are in line for refunds totaling about $18 million. Abbott says the time frame involves homeowners who refinanced through Ameriquest since 1999. About $295 million of the total will be paid to consumers by California-based Ameriquest. Abbott's office says the investigation involved alleged high-pressure sales schemes to refinance mortgages. The settlement involves 49 states and the District of Columbia. Eligible homeowners will be contacted by mail.


Senate Democrats are holding a public inquiry into allegations that troops and civilians at a U.S. military base in Iraq were exposed to contaminated water last year. The contractor in charge of water quality is Houston-based Halliburton, which disputes the claims about water problems at Camp Junction City in Ramadi. Interviews with former Halliburton employees and internal company documents show the level of contamination was roughly twice the normal level of untreated water from the Euphrates River. The employees could not convince the company that people at the camp should be told. Today's inquiry is being chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. Dorgan says Democrats are acting on their own because they could not persuade Republican committee chairmen to investigate.


The final numbers for 2005 on sales of both previously-owned and new homes are among the economic reports scheduled for release this week. Analysts surveyed by briefing.com expect the December numbers for existing home sales will be down somewhat from the annual sales pace of 6.97 during November--to a level of 6.9 million. The new home sales report is to show an increase after a steep decline the month before. We'll also get an advance look at the Gross Domestic Product number for the fourth quarter. Analysts are forecasting an economic growth rate of three percent, down from the third quarter rate of 4.1 percent.


Jury selection for another Vioxx civil trial begins tomorrow in South Texas. Attorneys for family members of 71-year-old Leonel Garza say the popular painkiller was responsible for his death after he took the medication for arm pain. The trial is in Rio Grande City, a town of about 12,000 less than five miles from the Mexico border. Legal experts say Garza's case had little hope of making it to trial anywhere but the Rio Grande Valley--a region viewed as one of the toughest jurisdictions for corporate defendants. The valley became the national poster child for the costs of lawsuit abuse in April 2002. That's when hundreds of doctors closed their offices to protest quadrupling insurance premiums because of the high number of medical malpractice lawsuits. The drug-maker Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market in 2004 when a study showed it could double risk of heart attack or stroke if taken for 18 months or longer. Garza had only taken the medication for 17 days.


The new leader of R-Calf United Stockgrowers of America wants to change perceptions of the group. Chuck Kiker is from mainstream cattle country--Texas. And as R-Calf's new president, the cattle and rice producer wants to expand the size and appeal of the group, perhaps best known for its fight over cattle and beef trade with Canada. If successful, Kiker says it could mean an eventual move from R-Calf's home base in Billings, Montana, to a larger city such as Dallas or Denver. He says everybody defined R-Calf as a radical group from the north, and now that's being redefined. Kiker succeeds Montana rancher Leo McDonnell as president. He says the south is an area of interest for recruitment and R-Calf has hired help to sign up more members there.


American Airlines said today it'll resume one daily nonstop flight between New York's Laguardia Airport and New Orleans on February 3rd. American had stopped the service after Hurricane Katrina in late August. The unit of Fort Worth-based AMR Corporation also said it would resume nonstop jet service between New Orleans and St. Louis on April 3rd. That replaces one of two daily flights now offered by sister carrier AmericanConnection. Also in April, American plans to add six flights between New Orleans and Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Miami. It currently offers eight nonstop flights to those cities.


ATA Airlines is adding service to four cities and will increase flights to Hawaii. It's the first sign of the Indianapolis-based airline's business plan once it emerges from federal bankruptcy protection in the coming weeks. Today's announcement comes after months of gate closures and layoffs. Starting in April, ATA will begin flying from Houston's Hobby Airport to New York. The airline will also begin flying from Hilo, Hawaii, as well as Oakland and Ontario in California. ATA will increase its nonstop flights from Honolulu to the U.S. mainland and will add daily round trip flights from Houston to New York-Laguardia. ATA and its parent company are expected to emerge from bankruptcy protection in late February.


Pilgrim's Pride today reports its profit declined in the latest quarter due to weakness in its Mexico operations. The Pittsburg, Texas,-based company also cited higher energy costs and lower sales prices. Pilgrim's Pride says net income for the fiscal first quarter, which ended December 31st, fell to $25.7 million. That's down from year-ago earnings of $48.5 million. Sales fell in the latest three months to $1.34 billion, from $1.37 billion.


Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston are among nine institutions that passed the $1 billion mark in endowments last year. That's according to a study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The number of U.S. colleges with endowments topping $1 billion stands at 56. Harvard remains the richest, at $25.5 billion. Yale is second at $15.2 billion. The study of 746 institutions found that those institutions earned a median of 9.3 percent on their investments in the year ending June 30th. Institutions besides SMU and Baylor Med passing the $1 billion endowment mark were: University of Toronto, University of Wisconsin Foundation, University of Nebraska and Foundation, University of Delaware, University of Cincinnati, Amherst College and Smith College.


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