Thursday AM January 4th, 2007

ISM reports renewed manufacturing expansion...Commerce Department reports home building down for record eighth straight month...Union of Concerned Scientists alleges Exxon Mobil gave millions to discredit science behind global warming...

A newly-released snapshot of the nation's manufacturing sector finds renewed expansion in December after a one-month contraction. The Institute for Supply Management says its closely-watched index rose to 51.4, which is stronger than expected. That's up nearly two points from November's lackluster reading. The trade group says new orders and production were rising, even as employment and inventories were shrinking.

The Commerce Department reports that construction activity saw further weakening in November, with home building down for a record eighth straight month. The two-tenths-of-one-percent decline took construction down to a seasonally adjusted annual level of $1.18 trillion. Analysts believe that home building could remain weak for several more months as builders work to reduce their backlog of unsold homes. Housing has been in a slump after a boom fueled by the lowest mortgage rates in more than four decades. Spending on nonresidential projects showed strength last month, rising a strong one and a-half percent to an all-time high.

General Motors says its sales fell 13 percent in December as mostly flat results on the car side were offset by a plunge of 19 percent in truck sales. For all of 2006, GM sales were down almost nine percent. Earlier in the day, Chrysler says a new incentive plan helped send sales up a-half percent last month. The U.S. unit of DaimlerChrysler, which relies heavily on trucks and SUVs, had total sales of 190,415 vehicles for the month. Analysts had been calling for a decline. The company, which consists of the Chrysler, Jeep, Mercedes and Dodge brands, says sales for the year were down about seven percent. Chrysler's sales rose one percent, but Mercedes sales dropped ten percent in December. And Ford is in danger of being beaten by Toyota in terms of sales for the third month in 2006. The nation's number-two automaker says its sales plunged nearly 13 percent last month from December of 2005. Toyota beat Ford in July and November, and some analysts are predicting the Japanese automaker will overtake Ford as the second-largest seller of automobiles in the U.S. this year. For all of 2006, Ford's sales were down about eight percent, due largely to a decline in truck and SUV sales and the end of production of the Taurus sedan.

A science-based advocacy group alleged that Exxon Mobil gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005. The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists says the donations were a coordinated effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming. The group's report mirrors similar claims by Britain's leading scientific academy. Last September, the Royal Society wrote to the Irving-based oil giant, asking it to halt support for groups that "misrepresented the science of climate change.'' No comment yet from Exxon Mobil. Exxon Mobil called the scientists' report "yet another attempt to smear our name and confuse the discussion of the serious issue of CO-2 emissions and global climate change.'' The company says its financial support doesn't mean control over any group's views.

According to a market analysis by Yoh, employees with technical skills are a valued commodity in Texas. The region, which includes Austin and Dallas in this study, is one of 12 major U.S. technology hubs where there is stiff competition for high-impact talent. Yoh reports that many companies will have difficulty finding candidates with specialized technical skills, especially in research and development in the pharmaceutical, medical device and biotech areas, as well as in software development.

A bigger chunk of what employers pay their workers is in the form of benefits. A study released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute says that of the $7 trillion spent on workers in 2005, 80.6 percent went to wages and salaries, while 19.4 percent was for benefits. In 1960, wages and salaries accounted for about 92 percent of employer spending for total compensation. The analysis of 2005 Commerce Department data also shows that retirement benefits cost employers $628.4 billion--up almost $170 billion from 2000; health benefits surged $197 billion from 2000, to $596.5 billion. The study also says that health benefits accounted for 44 percent of employer spending on benefits in 2005--compared with 42 percent in 2000 and just 14 percent in 1960.

The latest Hudson Employment Index shows workers are less satisfied with their jobs and increasingly worried about their future. The index, a measure of worker confidence, fell 2.6 points last month, after rising almost four points in November. According to the index, just 73 percent of workers were happy with their current job, a two point drop from November and the lowest reading since August of 2005. As a result, 39 percent of workers say they are very--or somewhat--likely to look for a new job this year. Personal finances also took a slight hit in December. Forty-four percent of workers say their finances are down--one percent from November. And, those who said their finances are getting better also fell one percent--to 41 percent.

Houston-based Ashmore Energy International increased its interest to more than 42 percent in Promigas, according to the Houston Business Journal, in a $510 million deal. That's a controlling interest in the Colombian firm, which recently expanded its operations into Peru, Ecuador and Mexico. Ashmore operates 20 energy assets in 12 countries. AEI currently serves 6.5 million customers by operating through three business segments: natural gas services, power distribution and power generation.

A Waste Management subsidiary has closed the sale of some of its California operations to Waste Connections, according to the Houston Business Journal. Houston-based Waste Management operates collection operations, transfer stations, active landfill disposal sites, waste-to-energy plants, recycling plants, beneficial-use landfill gas projects and independent power production plants.

Houston-based Michael Stevens Interest is developing a 324-unit luxury apartment complex, according to the Houston Business Journal. The apartments are on 17.7 acres at State Highway 249 and Cypresswood Drive in the Champions/1960 area. The first occupancy begins in April.

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