Friday PM January 26th, 2007

Gasoline prices continue dropping in Texas...Dell reportedly selling computers loaded with Microsoft's new Vista tonight...Eight Houston firms are winners of Offshore Energy Achievement Awards...

Retail gasoline prices continue to fall across Texas--and average prices for regular, self-serve have dropped below $2 a gallon in some areas this week. The AAA Texas gas price survey shows regular, self-serve is averaging $2.05 per gallon across the state. That's down six cents from last week. But averages have fallen below $2 gallon in Beaumont and Corpus Christi. The national average is $2.15 per gallon--down six cents from last week. Houston's average is down 6.7 cents to $2.02 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says it's unclear how long prices will remain at present levels or lower. She says crude oil prices rose this week to $55 a barrel on news President Bush wants to double the U.S. Strategic Oil Reserve. There also have been indications that OPEC will stand behind its pledge to cut oil production. But gasoline supplies remain plentiful. The most expensive gas in the survey is in the Austin area, where regular, self-serve is averaging $2.12 per gallon. That's down a nickel from last week. Corpus Christi has the cheapest gas average at $1.91, seven cents less than last week.


There's word that Dell plans to start selling computers loaded with Microsoft's new Vista operating system on its Web site and over the phone tonight. The Wall Street Journal reports people familiar with the matter say the Dell Web site will begin selling both notebooks and desktops loaded with Vista just before midnight, Eastern time. Customers who order right away could receive their new Vista-loaded computer Tuesday, the day Vista for consumers officially launches.


New home sales rose again last month, but that couldn't make up for the fact that 2006 was a lousy year for the housing market. The Commerce Department says new home sales rose 4.8 percent last month, the second straight monthly gain. For all of last year, sales of new homes fell more than 17 percent. That's the biggest decline in 16 years. After setting records for five years, sales of both new and existing homes slumped last year. Many analysts believe the housing market could see some further weakness before recovering.


Homebuilder KB Homes says that the Securities and Exchange Commission has launched a formal investigation into its stock-option granting practices. In a regulatory filing, the company says it was cooperating with the probe. Last August, Los Angeles-based KB Homes received an informal inquiry from regulators regarding its option practices. CEO Bruce Karatz agreed to leave in November after it was disclosed that he was the beneficiary of favorably dated option awards. He also agreed to repay the company $13 million after an internal report concluded the home construction company incorrectly reported stock-option grants. About 107 companies are currently under scrutiny by the SEC or the Justice Department for handling of stock-option grants. Dozens of others have launched or completed internal reviews into their stock options practices.


South Korean prosecutors have indicted the Korean head of a U.S. buyout fund. Paul Yoo heads Lone Star Advisors Korea, the South Korean unit of Dallas-based Lone Star Funds. A prosecution spokesman says he's charged with stock price manipulation and tax evasion. The charges are part of a long-running South Korean probe that last year resulted in the cancellation of a multi-billion dollar bank sale. Lone Star funds bought a controlling stake in 2003 in then-distressed local lender Korea Exchange Bank. Prosecutors, however, have probed the deal over allegations Lone Star colluded with the bank's former management and government officials. The alleged aim was to paint the bank's financial health as being worse than it was to cut the price. Prosecutors have also investigated allegations that KEB and Lone Star were involved in manipulating the stock price of the bank's credit card unit in 2003 ahead of the bank's merger with it. Lone Star Funds has consistently denied any wrongdoing, calling the accusations "politically motivated.''


Credit cards are generating a lot of interest on Capitol Hill. Democratic lawmakers challenged credit card executives over rising late fees and other penalties and marketing practices they portrayed as predatory. The credit card industry and its practices came under scrutiny at a session of the Senate Banking Committee. Several Democratic members are proposing to make companies provide more details to consumers on how long it will take them to pay off their debts if they make minimum monthly payments. Senators questioned a panel of witnesses that included executives of Chase Bank USA, Barclays Bank and Capital One Financial Corporation. The executives defended their practices as fair and responsible. They said most customers pay their bills on time, and only a small proportion of them represent a risk of default and are subject to punitive measures.


Winners in ten categories were announced at the Offshore Energy Achievement Awards gala at the Museum of Natural Science last night, with eight of the ten awards going to Houston area firms. Winners include Noble Corporation of Sugar Land for Health, Safety and Environment; ExxonMobil Upstream Research for Geosciences; Hydro and Halliburton for Well Construction; Commingled Intelligent of Sugar Land for Production; AMEC Paragon for Facilities; At Balance Americas for Field Life Extension; Woodlands-based Grant Prideco's IntelliServe Network for Emerging Innovation/Technology; Shell E&P for Project of the Year; and the Offshore Energy Center for Industry Champion.


Baker Hughes in Houston reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. tumbled by 46 this week--to hit 1,699. The Texas count fell by 12.


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