Thursday AM February 22nd, 2007

Real estate sales in greater Houston area continue increasing, even as rest of nation sees slowdown...Output Exploration being acquired by The Exploration Company in $91.6 million deal...Spacehab drops suit against NASA over losses from space shuttle accident...

Real estate sales in the greater Houston area continue increasing, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. Total property sales for the month registered an 8.1 percent increase over the same month last year. Properties sold during the month increased 12.3 percent over January 2006. HAR Chairman Rob Cook says there are other statistics that are cause for optimism for Houston homebuilders.

"The median price is $142,000 and the average is about $181,000. Median means half sold above, half sold below. And then the average is just an aggregate in the average price."

Cook says while other regions of the country have seen declining figures, the housing market in Houston remains healthy.

"It's really fun to have people from California and Florida come in because they come in with the equities from their existing homes and they can have cash left over. If they bought a house here for $500,000 and they sold one for $500,000, what they had up there was a starter home. The median price in California is about $550,000. Here that's an upscale home. So they get a lot of bang for their buck."

Cook says impressive moderate gains keep Houston in a national "safe zone," compared to those cities which have seen occasional spikes.

Houston-based Output Exploration is being acquired by The Exploration Company of San Antonio in a $91.6 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. Output holds onshore acreage in the Gulf region, western Oklahoma and California's Sacramento Basin. The California properties will be sold to another party before the deal closes.

Webster-based Spacehab is dropping its suit against NASA relating to losses incurred because of the 2003 space shuttle accident, according to the Houston Business Journal. Spacehab said it is in it best interest to drop the claim against its largest customer because potential benefits no longer outweighed continuation of litigation. The company had been seeking $87.7 million in damages for the loss of its Research Double Module during the mishap. NASA paid Spacehab $8 million plus $200,000 interest in October 2004, claiming its liability was limited under the contract.

Blame medical care and airline tickets for raising inflation's temperature a bit. The Labor Department's Consumer Price Index rose two-tenths of one percent in January, slightly more than expected. Falling energy prices helped to partially offset rising costs of health care, food and airline tickets. The core rate, which excludes sometimes volatile food and energy costs, rose three-tenths, also a tick higher than expected. It is the largest increase in seven months for the core. The cost of medical care was said to have posted the biggest increase in more than 15 years.

A forward-looking economic gauge is showing less momentum than forecast. The Conference Board says the January Index of Leading Indicators rose one-tenth of one percent. Analysts had been looking for a two-tenths rise. The business research group says the LEI was restrained by the housing market slump and sluggish auto manufacturing. The index is designed to forecast economic activity over the next three to six months.

The Texas House has adopted a resolution that would allow members to exceed the state's spending limit by billions of dollars. The constraints were added to the Texas constitution in 1978. The resolution was earlier approved in the Senate. The plan now goes to Governor Rick Perry. The legislature is struggling with higher spending this year because of $14 billion promised to schools--in exchange for decreased property taxes. That's pushed the draft budget about $9 billion over what the state should be able to spend under the constitutionally required spending cap. The state has enough money to pay for the base budget and the tax cuts.

Taxes take a bigger bite out of the Big Apple than any other urban area in the nation. Dallas had the lowest rate of the nine cities reviewed as part of the analysis released. The Independent Budget Office report says local government taxes absorb $9.02 of every $100 worth of taxable resources in New York City. That compares to an average $6.16 average for the most populous U.S. cities. Of the nine cities, Dallas had the lowest rate, with $5.20 cents per $100 worth of taxable resources. Analysts estimated each city's gross taxable resources, made up of city household incomes and business surpluses. The portion of tax capacity being used by government was also calculated. The analysis is based on numbers from 2003 and 2004.

Business leaders in a growing number of states are beginning to take a bigger role in the immigration debate. Florida business leaders tired of immigration deadlock in Washington will seek to form a coalition today. The effort is meant to pressure Florida and federal representatives to push for changes. Texas, Arizona and Colorado--home to some of the nation's largest immigrant populations--already have business coalitions dedicated to the issue. Some Florida business leaders say industry has relied too much on national associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, rather than working from the ground up. The non-profit Pew Hispanic Center reports Florida ranks third after California and Texas for illegal immigrants, with at least 800,000.

Health care spending is projected to take a bigger bite out of the economic pie in the coming decade. Economists expect health care to account for $1 out of every $5 spent in the United States by 2016. A report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid anticipates a rise in out-of-pocket expenses such as co-pays from about $850 this year to about $1,400 in 2016. That's an annual increase of more than five percent. The cost of health insurance is projected to rise even more quickly, by nearly 6.5 percent a year. Consumers are spending more on the latest treatments, despite their rising costs. The deputy director of the government's national health statistics group notes that people want to "purchase good health.''

A unit of Willbros Group has been contracted by a joint venture of Spectra Energy and CenterPoint Energy to build 190 miles of a 270-mile pipeline from northeast Louisiana to Alabama, according to the Houston Business Journal. All three firms are headquartered in Houston. Construction is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of this year and be completed in the summer of 2008.

While satellite radio rivals XM and Sirius have every intention of merging, it's not going to happen right away. The two will operate entirely as separate companies until they clear regulatory hurdles, and that means any direct benefits to consumers such as sharing programming could be a ways off. Additionally, their broadcasting systems aren't compatible, so in order to get both signals, you'd need to have new kind of receiver, which is still being developed. Meanwhile, both companies explain that they'll continue to provide full service to both of their existing bases of customers--about 7.6 million for XM and more than six million for Sirius. If the merger goes go through and they share programming between their lineups, sports fans will be cheering as they wouldn't necessarily have to choose between baseball games--currently available only on XM--and NFL games, which are on Sirius.

AT&T said it's gotten a five-year, $1 billion global networking contract from General Motors. The deal is to help the world's largest automaker boost productivity. San Antonio-based AT&T will provide network-integration management services for GM's worldwide telecommunications infrastructure. The services will include voice and data applications and systems support. The pact renews and expands an existing contract between AT&T and GM.

Zale Corporation said its second-quarter profit edged up. But the Irving-based jewelry retailer says one-time charges and flat revenue were a drag on the gain. Profit for the quarter ended January 31st totaled $88.1 million. That's up a fraction of a percentage point from the previous year's quarter. Revenue grew one percent to $1 billion. Same-store sales grew 1.4 percent during the quarter. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial expected net income of $1.89 per share on revenue of $1.02 billion.

Shell Oil is the world's leading oil firm based on sustainability, social responsibility, corporate governance and ethics and transparency, according to Spanish research and rating firm Management & Excellence, as reported by the Houston Business Journal. Shell, with headquarters in Houston, has captured the number one spot for the four years of the annual ranking. The survey measures oil and gas companies' compliance with 386 international standards such as those by the SEC, Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, national laws, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, industry benchmarks and standards and reserves accounting.

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