Thursday AM January 25th, 2007

Houston real estate market continues to outperform national market...UH Global Energy Management Institute hosting Trading and Marketing conference...ConocoPhillips blames lower gas prices and reduced refining margins for fourth-quarter profit 13 percent below last year's quarter...

The Houston real estate market continues to outshine the national market, according to statistics released by the Houston Association of Realtors. Year-end sales totaled 87,435 properties, with a dollar volume of $16.6 billion, compared to 79,012 properties worth $14.2 billion in 2005. Total property sales for December registered 7,136—a 1.1 percent increase over December 2005. Properties sold during the month reached more than $1.4 billion—an 11.5 percent increase compared to last year's nearly $1.3 billion in December sales. The median price for a single-family home increased 1.4 percent to a monthly record of $150,000, and the average single-family home price increased 5.3 percent to $206,228.

Centex is reporting its first ever quarterly loss. The CEO of Dallas-based Centex called the toughest housing market in 25 years. The homebuilder has cut its work force by 17 percent since last March, when it had nearly 19,000 employees. Chief Executive Timothy Eller says more employees will go in the next three months, bringing the 12-month reductions to 30 percent. That would add up to more than 5,500 workers. Centex said it lost 228.1 million in the quarter ending December 31st. That's a reversal from a year-ago profit of 329.3 million. Centex says it expects to break even in the January-through-March quarter.


The University of Houston's Global Energy Management Institute is hosting its fifth annual Trading and Marketing Conference this morning at the University Hilton Hotel. This year's conference is called "Speculation in Energy Markets," as GEMI Energy Markets Director Craig Pirrong explains.

"You know, the issue of speculation has really come to the fore with the big run-up in energy prices last year and this volatility that we've experienced. And so, in its tradition of being a forum--a neutral forum--for people to debate current and contentious issues in energy, UHMI is looking to, you know, basically provide, you know, an outlet for people with very different views to express what they think is happening and what its impacts on the market are."

Pirrong says the trend of large financial players dominating the industry, rather than merchant energy, has caught the attention of Congress.

"A Congressman has announced new legislation called Pump, something to do with manipulative practices, trying to--there are various legislative and regulatory proposals to, for greater regulatory oversight of energy and energy speculation. And so this is very much on the front burner in Washington, particularly with the change of control in Congress."

The GEMI Trading and Marketing Conference brings traders, risk managers, securities analysts, investors, consultants and lawyers together to discuss energy trading.


Houston-based ExpressJet Holdings plans to start an independent regional jet service in April to 24 cities nationwide currently without direct flights. Specific destinations have not yet been released, but the route system will be revealed on February 1st. ExpressJet operates regional flights for Continental Airlines.


This is shaping up as the strongest year for job offers since the downturn earlier this decade as colleges report an increase in recruitment. Word is management consulting firms, investment banks and accounting firms are intensifying recruiting efforts on campus and that there's growing competition from such fields as technology, consumer products, government and even nonprofits. The National Association of Colleges and Employers says firms plan to hire 17 percent more graduates from the Class of 2007 than they got from the Class of 2006. That would make this year the strongest job market since 2000-2001. Behind the increased recruiting are a relatively good economy, growing business demands and strong corporate profits.


A shortage of snow threatened to make this year's World Economic Forum the greenest ever. As it turned out, a storm covered the town of Davos, Switzerland with a fresh layer of white as participants started discussing global warming and climate change. The five-day meeting is also focusing on efforts to resolve tensions in the Middle East. About 2,400 business and political leaders, journalists, bloggers and celebrities are meeting at the five-day annual gathering. They're to talk politics, economics and social issues with an eye toward long-term solutions instead of quick fixes. Some 24 heads of state are due to attend to the meeting, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.


ConocoPhillips blames lower gas prices and reduced margins at its refining operations for a fourth-quarter profit 13 percent below last year's quarter. The Houston-based number three oil company in the United States says net income dropped to $3.2 billion. Revenue fell 19 percent to $42.54 billion. Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Mulva said the company "continued to experience operational challenges'' on the exploration and production side of the business. Weather-related transportation delays in Alaska hurt quarterly production, as did unplanned downtime related to maintenance at a North Sea field. Earnings in 2006 rose almost 15 percent to $15.55 billion. Full-year revenue grew by 2.8 percent to $188.52 billion.


A federal jury has decided that Kerr-McGee knowingly underpaid government royalties by nearly $7.6 million. The panel ruled that Kerr-McGee sold oil produced from the Gulf of Mexico at below-market prices. A lawyer for Kerr-McGee said the company will appeal. Kerr-McGee is owned by Anadarko Petroleum of The Woodlands. The verdict in Denver came in a civil lawsuit by Bobby Maxwell, a former auditor with the U.S. Minerals Management Service. The service collects payments on oil and natural gas produced through leases on public lands. Maxwell's attorneys tell the Denver Post that Kerr-McGee may be liable for up to $39 million in damages.


It was a profitable farewell for Cingular Wireless. The nation's largest cell phone provider reported its fourth-quarter profit nearly quadrupled last year's quarter. Cingular says it earned $782 million during the quarter after getting a lift from customer growth during the winter holiday quarter. It reported quarterly revenue rose ten percent to 9.8 billion. The fourth-quarter growth was driven in part by a net increase of 2.4 million customers during the holiday quarter. That's typically the heaviest selling season for cell phones. For the year, the company's net income was $2.5 billion. That's compared to $333 million dollars in 2005. Henceforth, Cingular will report earnings as part of its new parent, San Antonio-based AT&T. Cingular was re-branded under the AT&T name last week. It had been a joint venture of San Antonio-based AT&T and Atlanta-based BellSouth before AT&T completed its $86 billion purchase of BellSouth last month.

A BellSouth official given a post at AT&T after its buyout of BellSouth has decided to retire. Rod Odom had been tapped to run AT&T Southeast, which would have overseen BellSouth's former territories in nine southeastern states. That job now goes to another BellSouth veteran, David Scobey. Odom joins two other BellSouth veterans who have chosen to leave after they were expected to stay. Isaiah Harris had been selected to run AT&T's advertising and publishing unit in the east. But he recently said he'll step down. AT&T spokesman Jeff Battcher said Harris, who worked at Atlanta-based BellSouth for a decade, is pursuing other interests. Marc Gary had been BellSouth's general counsel. She's also decided to seek other work. San Antonio-based AT&T initially said he'd be in charge of legal matters for AT&T in the southeast. The departures add to the list of top BellSouth leaders who won't be staying with AT&T. Those leaving or who have left include former BellSouth Chairman and CEO Duane Ackerman, former President and Chief Operating Officer Mark Feidler and others.


Some liquor wholesalers have donated nearly $1.7 million to state officials. The wholesalers are pushing for changes to a law that prohibits them from selling alcohol directly to restaurants and bars. The decades-old law says only package liquor stores may supply businesses where customers drink on the premises. Documents filed with the Texas Ethics Commission show Governor Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick received $100,000 apiece. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst received $75,000 from officers of the wholesalers and their political committees. Twenty-three state senators received $20,000 donations. At least $1,000 apiece was donated to 130 House members. Alan Gray with the Licensed Beverage Distributors pac says the current system for distributing distilled spirits is inefficient and archaic--and they're going to seek a change.


Boston-based GID Urban Development Group is tearing down the Allen House Apartments on Allen Parkway to transform the 24-acre site into a pedestrian-focused neighborhood. Regent Square will be a mixed-use development featuring apartments, condominiums, restaurants, offices, shops and a hotel. Construction is slated to begin during the fourth quarter of 2007 with an opening set for 2010.


The Houston Community College system plans to break ground Friday on a building that's part of its $200 million capital improvements campaign. HCC is constructing a four-story learning hub and science building on Holman, adjacent to the San Jacinto Building.


Fashion Week in New York comes to Houston on March 8th in tented superstructures near Houston's Water Wall. FashionWeekLive includes a champagne reception and pre-event cocktails before guests are led into the show venue for an hour-long production featuring designer looks modeled by Naomi Campbell, Gemma Ward and others. The road show, produced by New York-based IMG, also stops in Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco.


The Woodlands-based Lexicon Genetics has begun a new clinical trial for its treatment of irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal disorders. IBS is a common gastrointestinal problem affecting between ten and 20 percent of adults in the United States. About 40 healthy volunteers are testing the safety and tolerability of LX1031, and a randomized, double-blind, ascending multiple dose study will follow.


The Missouri Court of Appeals has thrown out a $20 million jury award to five former State Farm insurance agents. The agents claimed they were improperly terminated for criticizing the Bloomington, Illinois-based company's treatment of policyholders. The five agents--one each from Texas, Missouri and Ohio and two from Maryland--filed suit in Missouri's Jackson County Circuit Court over their January 2000 terminations by State Farm. The ruling says that the agents could be terminated by State Farm "at will'' since they were independent contractors operating their own businesses. The court says that nothing in the open-ended agreements the agents signed gave them contractual rights. The agreements also allowed the agents to stop selling State Farm policies at any time.


Swift is looking into a variety of financial strategies for the future. The options include selling the company or going public with a stock offering. Swift says it has received a series of unsolicited inquiries from a number of third parties. It has hired J.P. Morgan to help with the review of strategies. Analysts say that with beef and pork processing plants in six states and an operation in Australia, Swift may find buyers more interested in pieces rather than the whole company. The privately-held company is one of the nation's largest meatpacking processors and was the target of a federal immigration raid last month. The company has said the immigration raids could cost up to $30 million in recruitment and training costs for new employees. Swift's majority shareholder is Dallas investment firm H.M. Capital Partners and its investment partner is Booth Creek Management.


The Food and Drug Administration says a San Antonio broker offering ready-made embryos to prospective parents--does not fall under its jurisdiction. An FDA earlier confirmed it was investigating Jennalee Ryan's Abraham Center of Life. But an FDA statement said that the review determined the facility wasn't engaged in practices that fall under FDA jurisdiction. Ryan's service involves a New York physician who uses donated eggs and sperm to create embryos that cost $5,000 per pair. Some experts say Ryan may be crossing ethical lines by marketing a better baby. But Ryan said she's just trying to help those who may not be able to have a biological baby of their own. Clients can review donor characteristics, including their ethnic and educational background and, in some cases, their photos.


Brinker International reports a three percent increase in earnings in the latest quarter. But Dallas-based Brinker says sales environment is "soft.'' Brinker operates Chili's Grill & Bar, On the Border and Romano's Macaroni Grill. The company earned $44.2 million in the fiscal second quarter that ended December 27th. Brinker, in the same period one year earlier, earned $42.9 million. The latest results included a $6.7 million impairment charge.


Forget April 15th. This year, your tax return--and payment--aren't due until April 17th. That's because the 15th falls on a Sunday and the following day is Emancipation Day--a legal holiday in the District of Columbia. The IRS says holidays observed in the nation's capital have an impact nationwide. The April 17th deadline will apply to actions including: 2006 federal individual income tax returns, whether filed electronically or on paper; requests for an automatic six-month tax-filing extension; 2006 balance due payments; tax-year 2006 contributions to a Roth or traditional IRA.


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