Wednesday PM November 22nd, 2006

Holiday gasoline prices largely unchanged from last week...Enron Broadband executives appeal to have remaining counts thrown out...As Bush administration lowers economic forecast, White House's Council of Economic Advisers insists economy is in "really good shape''...

Motorists heading out on the roads for the Thanksgiving holiday this week will find retail gasoline prices in Texas largely unchanged from last week. The AAA Texas Gas Price Survey released today finds regular, unleaded self-serve averaging $2.11 per gallon. That's practically unchanged from last week. The national average is $2.33 per gallon, also virtually unchanged. Houston's average is up almost a penny to $2.05 per gallon. But auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says speculation on the gasoline futures market this week has led to some wild wholesale price fluctuations. She says it remains to be seen how that'll affect retail gas prices--if at all. The survey finds the cheapest gasoline in Texas in Corpus Christi, where it's averaging $2.02 per gallon. That's down about two cents per gallon from last week. The most expensive is found in Amarillo, where it's averaging $2.16 per gallon--up a penny.


Three former Enron Broadband executives are appealing to have remaining counts against them thrown out, after their trial that resulted in some acquittals and hung jurors on other charges. Former unit CEO Joe Hirko, software executive Rex Shelby and strategist Scott Yeager filed challenges with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. All three face retrials on fewer charges pending results of their appeals. The government contends the three overstated capabilities of the unit's broadband network to appeal to Wall Street. Yeager was acquitted of conspiracy and fraud, and Hirko and Shelby were acquitted of some insider trading and money laundering counts. Shelby was also acquitted of a fraud count. Yeager faces a retrial for insider trading and money laundering, while Hirko and Shelby face conspiracy, fraud and insider trading charges.

Two former lenders say a $72.5 million settlement by Enron shareholders with Arthur Andersen allows an "obvious wrongdoer" to get out of the case too cheaply. Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse Group have asked U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon to reject the settlement. But the University of California Board of Regents, which lost $145 million when Enron collapsed, says the Andersen settlement is reasonable, given what's left of the accounting firm. Andersen shut down most of its offices after being convicted in 2002 of obstructing a federal investigation of the firm's review of Enron books.


Longview is getting about 500 jobs as Cincinnati-based Convergys plans to open a call center. Work is expected to begin next month to prepare a building that formerly housed an office supply company. The Longview Economic Development Corporation approved a $600,000 incentive grant for Convergys. The company provides customer care, human resources and billing services.


A report today says a U.S. private equity group is considering terminating its contract to sell Korea Exchange Bank to Kookmin Bank. The Financial Times reports investigations by South Korean prosecutors have brought talks to a halt. Dallas-based Lone Star in 2003 bought a controlling stake in the bank for $1.5 billion. Prosecutors have been reviewing allegations that Lone Star colluded with former management and government officials to affect the way the bank's finances were portrayed. Lone Star denies the charges, calling the probe "politically motivated.'' The Financial Times quotes Lone Star Chairman John Grayken as saying the company is considering its options, including terminating the deal.


A report says the U.S. airline industry needs to do a better job of providing timely information about flight delays and in handling bumped passengers. The Transportation Department's Inspector General's Report to Congress focuses on several industry-wide shortcomings over customer service. The agency reviewed operations at 14 large U.S. airlines. The inspector general found that carriers needed improvement in: giving passengers accurate and timely information about delays and cancellations; training employees who assist passengers with disabilities; explaining to frequent fliers the rules and restrictions governing redemptions, and compensating passengers who agree to give up seats on overbooked flights. The review was requested by the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in June of 2005.


The Austin-based Schlotzsky's sandwich chain is changing hands again--just two years after it was bought out of bankruptcy proceedings. The Atlanta-based private-equity firm Roark Capital Group announced it's acquiring Schlotzsky's for an undisclosed price. The deli chain has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Focus Brands. That company's owned by affiliates of Roark Capital Group. Focus Brands is the franchisor and operator of nearly 1,400 cafes, bakeries and ice cream stores under the brand names Seattle's Best Coffee, Cinnabon and Carvel. Focus Brands says Schlotzsky's headquarters will remain in Austin, and all employees have been offered jobs. Schlotzsky's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection 2004. Bobby Cox Companies of Fort Worth bought the chain for $28.5 million later that year in a bankruptcy court sale. The sandwich maker has 380 franchised and company-owned locations, mostly across the south and southwest and in six foreign countries.


The Labor Department is reporting a modest increase in the number of new claims for jobless benefits last week. The total number of new claims increased by a seasonally adjusted 12,000 to 321,000. While at a three-week high, the level of claims is seen indicating a firm job market. The four-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number, rose by 3,000 to 317,000. That's the highest level since late August. The October unemployment rate was at a five-and-a-half-year low of 4.4 percent.


The head of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers insists the economy is in "really good shape.'' But the Bush administration is still lowering its economic growth forecast. The new projection is for Gross Domestic Product to grow by 3.1 percent from the fourth quarter of last year to the fourth quarter this year. That's down a half-a-percent from the forecast made in early June. The head of the council, Edward Lazear, says to blame it on the housing market. According to Lazear, it's been hit harder than most experts counted on, but he says the economy is weathering the housing slump. Still, the White House is revising its economic growth estimates downward for next year and into 2008.


Environmental opponents of powering Texas with new coal-fired plants are predicting a grim scenario. Those critics issued a report that estimates 240 deaths will happen each year from toxic emissions--if the units are built. But Dallas-based TXU Corporation, which plans to build 11 of the plants, questions the study's methodology. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also disagrees, saying its data indicates that the plants pose no risk of premature death. The report was commissioned by Public Citizen and the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.


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