Wednesday AM January 24th, 2007

Index of Leading Economic Indicators up slightly...ConocoPhillips to sell refinery in Ireland...Houston Technology Center's Paul Frison steps down as president and CEO...

A just-released gauge of the economy suggests growth ahead. The Conference Board says the Index of Leading Economic Indicators was up three-tenths of one percent in December. The index is intended to forecast growth over the next three to six months. The gain follows a flat reading in November and a slight decline in October. Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein says two soft spots in the economy, the housing and job markets, both showed signs of leveling last month.

ConocoPhillips is putting its Whitegate refinery in Cork, Ireland on the market, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston-based company hopes to sell the refinery and associated marketing business as an ongoing business that will continue providing products in Ireland and other European Union markets.

Marathon Oil has received approval from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for a $2.2 billion expansion of its refinery in Garyville, Louisiana. The Houston-based company hopes to start construction this year, with production beginning in the fourth quarter of 2009.

An executive who has been with the Houston Technology Center since its inception in 1999 is stepping down as president and CEO. Paul Frison cites family commitments for his resignation from the incubator for emerging technology companies, and says Walter Ulrich will assume the roles. Ulrich is the former CEO of Houston-based Mincron Software Systems, and was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to serve on the advisory committee for the $200 million Emerging Technology Fund.

A BP-led consortium has halted production of natural gas at a Caspian Sea field off the coast of Azerbaijan because of technical problems. Gas from the field has been anticipated by Azerbaijan and Georgia, which have been affected by Russia's decision to increase prices last year. The BP-led consortium includes Norway's Statoil, France's Total, Russia's Lukoil and others.

State-controlled Gazprom and Rosneft will divide Russia's seabed energy resources evenly, according to the financial newspaper Vedomosti. The paper reports that Gazprom and Rosneft would divide the country's offshore natural gas and oil fields evenly, based on a government meeting last week chaired by President Vladimir Putin. The decision would be in step with the Kremlin's policy of re-establishing state control over Russia's reserves.

Devon Energy says it will sell off its west African assets offshore Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Ivory Coast. The Houston-based company plans to focus development in North America, including the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in Brazil and China. The properties were acquired by Devon energy when it acquired Houston-based Ocean Energy in 2003. Devon will use the proceeds to pay off debt and continue buying back shares of stock.

Houstonians in need of affordable housing and newly-relocated residents affected by the 2005 hurricanes are invited to apply for zero-interest mortgages and the chance to own a new home built by Habitat for Humanity. The group is hosting an appreciation fair February 2nd and 3rd for pre-screening at its Habitat for Humanity ReStore at South Loop East at South Wayside. Habitat for Humanity has built more than 600 homes in Houston since it was founded in 1987.

Two more University of Texas branches have announced financial aid packages to guarantee free tuition for Texans from low-income families. The programs provide free tuition for children of families with incomes of $25,000 a year or less. The UT Dallas tuition promise applies to new, full-time undergraduate students. To remain eligible, students must complete 30 credit hours each year with a minimum 2.5 term and cumulative grade point average. They also must continue to meet income and grant eligibility requirements. Under a similar program at UT Arlington, called the Maverick Promise, the university will pay the difference between Pell Grant awards and total in-state tuition and mandatory fees. Both programs, which were announced this week, take effect this fall. UT San Antonio and UT Tyler announced similar free-tuition programs previously.

A more than $7 million settlement announced blocks a Dallas company from marketing a bogus gasoline additive. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott last May sued Bioperformance over the drop-in-the-tank pill and powders that experts say falsely were marketed to increase fuel efficiency. Investigators determined the sales involved a pyramid scheme. The lawsuit says Bioperformance made money by getting consumers to purchase the pills in bulk, then sell them to others. Abbott's office says the settlement will be shared by consumers who were deceived.

The parent of United Airlines reports a $61 million dollar loss for the fourth quarter. Its results were shy of Wall Street forecasts, in part because of in a series of winter storms that grounded thousands of flights. The announcement sent UAL shares down nearly five percent. Revenue rose five percent from a year ago, but still fell short of financial forecasts, despite a company warning earlier this month that predicted a "modest'' operating loss. In the 11 months since emerging from bankruptcy protection in February, the company earned $25 million. CEO Glenn Tilton, in a message to employees, called it "a defining year for United.'' He noted the exit from bankruptcy and a renewed focus on performance and customers. The nation's second largest airline by traffic, said a series of crippling winter storms cost $40 million in passenger revenue when the carrier had to cancel nearly 4,000 flights in December.

The top man at U.S. Airways won't say whether his company would be willing to increase its offer to buy Delta Air Lines. While CEO Doug Parker was noncommittal, he did tell the Associated Press in a phone interview "we're always willing to talk to people.'' The current offer is $10.1 billion. Parker says Delta's official committee of unsecured creditors has not indicated that it wants U.S. Airways to offer more money. The committee will play a key role in deciding whether any merger agreement will move forward.

Fort Worth-based homebuilder D.R. Horton said first-quarter earnings fell 64 percent. The nation's largest homebuilder by deliveries attributes the fall to charges for writing down the value of assets and forfeiting land deposits. The company used sales incentives to close on more homes than in the year-ago period. Horton didn't provide guidance for the fiscal year. But it says conditions in the housing sector, which has been in a slump the past year, "remain challenging.'' Net income in the quarter ended December 31st fell 65 percent to $109.7 million. The latest quarter included charges of $40.9 million for inventory impairments. There also were $36.8 million in deposit forfeitures on land options. Homebuilding revenue edged higher to $2.84 billion as Horton closed on 10,202 homes. That's up from 9,891 last year. Sales fell sharply with orders sliding to 8,771 homes worth $2.3 billion.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe said its fourth-quarter profit rose 21 percent. The Fort Worth-based railroad says it saw strong demand for shipments of coal, agricultural and consumer products. Quarterly earnings increased to $519 million. Revenue grew nine percent to $3.88 billion and topped analysts' estimate of $3.72 billion.

Houston City Council member M. J. Khan and Police Chief Harold Hurt have organized the first Business Owners Public Safety Awareness Tour for District F for the afternoon of January 29th beginning at Shahnai Restaurant on Hillcroft. Business owners, employees and merchants are invited to share concerns about crime and safety issues. The tour will make four stops in the district, and representatives on the local and state level will meet with constituents.

Carnival Cruise Lines is hiring experienced musicians aboard its 21-ship fleet. The line is looking for drummers, guitarists, pianists and horn players. Benefits include free room and board and the opportunity to travel to ports in the Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska and Europe. Information is available online.

Now that we know who's playing in the Super Bowl next month, planning for parties, setting up betting pools and checking out big-screen TVs is under way. Unfortunately for employers, a lot of that will occur Monday through Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. when people should be doing other things--like working. Global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimates the nation's employers could lose as much as 162 million for every ten minutes they pay distracted workers for unproductive work time. The calculation is based on a variety of things including the number of working Americans expected to watch the NFL title game, the average weekly income for all workers and the hourly wage.

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