Monday AM September 25th, 2006

Foreclosures increase in Houston area, although at a slower pace than nationwide...More IT and CFO hiring expected in Houston area... Federal regulators approve expansion of LNG terminal under construction at Freeport...

Houston foreclosure activity increased 15 percent in August--a slower pace of increase that the nationwide pace, but still more than two times the national average and fourth-highest among the nation's ten largest metropolitan areas. The August 2006 RealtyTrac U.S. Foreclosure Market Report says Harris County reported 3,006 properties entering some stage of foreclosure-the most of any county in the metro area and an increase of 17 percent from the previous month. That rate equals one new foreclosure filing for every 432 households, or 2.3 times the national average. Fort Bend County documented the highest rate, with one new foreclosure for every 247 households, or more than four times the national average.

Seventeen percent of Houston-area chief information officers expect to hire IT professionals in the fourth quarter of 2006, while only three percent plan personnel reductions. The Robert Half International Technology IT Hiring Index is four points above the national average. Meanwhile, ten percent of Houston-area chief financial officers plan to add staff during the quarter, while only two percent expect personnel reductions. Robert Half's Financial Hiring Index is four points above the national average. The results are based on the responses of 200 CFOs from a random sample of companies in the Houston area with 20 or more employees. Some 1,400 CFOs were questioned for the national data.

Federal regulators have approved the expansion of a liquified natural gas terminal under construction at Freeport, more than doubling the project's capacity, from 1.5 billion to four billion cubic feet a day. Construction began last year about 70 miles south of Houston, and the project could be operational by 2007. The Freeport terminal is backed by ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical, Cheniere Energy and Michael Smith, former head of Basin Exploration, an oil and gas company bought by Stone Energy in 2001. Five LNG import terminals are in service in the United States, and the commission has approved 15 proposals to build new ones or expand existing ones.

Federal regulators have granted preliminary approval for a portion of a $4.4 billion pipeline project, led by Houston-based Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, to bring natural gas from the Rocky Mountains to Missouri. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved proposed rates for the 713-mile western portion of the pipeline project. The commission must still issue environmental approvals. ConocoPhillips and Sempra energy are partners in the project.

Voting is underway through October 12th to let Continental Airlines fleet service workers to decide if they want to be represented by the Transport Workers Union of America. The union seeks to represent some 7,000 fleet service workers—3,000 are based in Houston, including ramp and cargo agents and cargo sales agents. The union says more than 80 percent of the workers at Continental's three main hubs have signed authorized cards indicating they want the union's representation.

Halliburton is increasing its share repurchase program from $1 billion to up to $2 billion. Sysco is buying back as many as three million shares through PNC Investments. And Texas Instruments has authorized the repurchase of an additional $5 billion of its stock. Companies can buy back stock as a way of returning profits to shareholders.

A year after Vioxx was pulled off pharmacy shelves over safety concerns, experts warn the FDA still can't track the safety of new drugs it approves. A panel from the Institute of Medicine says once a medicine hits the market, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have the resources to check on safety issues or warn the public about them. The institute says despite some efforts, "major obstacles remain.'' It wants the FDA a to review all drugs five years after they go on sale. Vioxx is a prime example of a problem with a prescription drug that turns up after approval. Six years after it went on sale, the painkiller was linked to increased risks of heart attacks and strokes.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison says she has removed language from her Wright Amendment bill that opponents saw as unwarranted antitrust protections. Hutchison said the change gives her a majority in moving forward with the legislation, which would lift restrictions on long-haul flights from Dallas Love Field after eight years. Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee that has jurisdiction over antitrust laws, was among several lawmakers who had raised concerns. Hutchison said now that Specter's concerns have been "satisfied,'' she will move forward with trying to move the bill to the Senate floor. Under the Wright Amendment, flights from Love Field must land in Texas or eight nearby states.

The 400 richest Americans, as compiled by Forbes magazine includes several Houstonians. Those making the list include: #35, Dan Duncan, with $7.5 billion from energy; #98, Richard Kinder, with $2.8 billion from pipelines; #117, George Mitchell, with $2.5 billion from energy; #242, Bob McNair, with $1.5 billion from energy and sports; and six other billionaires in the list of 400 richest Americans.

Newly revealed statistics suggest the most compelling quality a job seeker can possess in today's employment market apparently is to be over the age of 55. An analysis of federal employment data by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas shows the number of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s who are working is at a record high. As of August, 24.6 million workers were 55 and older, and about a-quarter of them were 65 and older. However, it's likely that it'll be harder for older job seekers to find positions, and not because of age discrimination. Challenger, Gray and Christmas says the competition will come from job-seeking baby boomers, 70 percent of whom plan to stay in the workplace beyond the traditional retirement age of 65.

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