Thursday PM February 22nd, 2007

Judge rules Enron shareholder lawsuit will proceed April 9th, as scheduled...Retail construction to increase by 17 percent in 2007...Whole Foods Market buys Oats Markets; quarterly profits fall, despite gains in revenue and same-store sales...

A judge ruled that a $40 billion Enron shareholder lawsuit will go to trial on April 9th as scheduled, despite a pending appeals court decision. U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon denied a request to postpone the trial by New York-based Merrill Lynch, London-based Barclay's and Zurich-based Credit Suisse First Boston. The banks are waiting for a ruling from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the litigation can proceed as a class action. Plaintiffs have garnered $7.3 billion in settlements so far, mostly from Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Former CEO Jeff Skilling, former Chief Accounting Officer Richard Causey and former Investor Relations Chief Mark Koenig remain as defendants, although Enron's former outside law firm Vinson & Elkins and the estate of former Enron Chairman Ken Lay have been dismissed. Enron crumbled into bankruptcy after years of accounting tricks could no longer hide billions in debt or make failing ventures appear profitable.


Construction of new retail space in the Houston area will increase by 17 percent this year, according to an annual forecast by research and consulting firm O'Connor & Associates. The president of real estate brokerage and development firm Wulfe & Company says construction costs should exceed $400 million, as 4.2 million square feet of new retail space is added this year. Ed Wulfe says that represents thousands of new construction jobs and permanent retail jobs. The new space will bring the Houston area's total shopping center space to about 139 million square feet, according to Wulfe's annual retail building survey. The new development will include a number of strip centers without anchors. Wulfe says about 14 percent of the new retail space will be speculative, without tenants already lined up.


Whole Foods Markets says its most recent quarterly profit fell, despite gains in revenue and same-store sales. The Austin-based specialty supermarket chain had ridden rode consumer interest in healthy food to stratospheric growth for several years. It became the world's largest natural-foods retail chain. But it's most recent quarterly profit fell almost eight percent from the previous year's quarter to $53.8 million. Revenue increased 12 percent to $1.87 billion, and same-store sales rose seven percent. That would be cause for joy at most retailers, but Whole Foods investors had become accustomed to double-digit gains. A year ago, the same-store sales gain was 13 percent. Whole Foods has seen its growth slow as supermarkets expand their organic sections and often offer lower prices. Chief Executive John Mackey has warned investors that same-store sales in the single digits are likely to become permanent.

Whole Foods Market announced it will pay $565 million for Wild Oats Markets. Austin-based Whole Foods says it will borrow to finance the deal for the chain of natural and organic food markets in the U.S. and Canada. Wild Oats has 110 stores in 24 states and British Columbia, Canada.


A crane collapse today in Hereford has left one worker dead and another hurt. Authorities say the accident happened at the construction site for the White Energy ethanol refinery. Officials say the collapse occurred as employees for the contractor, Fagen, were trying to add another section to the crane. Emergency personnel say the injured worker was airlifted to Northwest Texas Hospital in Amarillo. His condition wasn't immediately available.


The Coast Guard responded to a styrene spill early this morning at the Intercontinental Terminal Company in Deer Park. Four people were taken to an area hospital for minor injuries, but were later released. The Coast Guard says about 30 gallons of styrene monomer were released, with about ten gallons entering the water.


Witness accounts to investigators suggest liquid propane ignited to cause the fiery explosion at the Valero McKee refinery in Sunray. Fourteen workers required medical attention after last Friday's blaze, with one person still listed as critical with burns. U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigator Don Holmstrom says there's no visible damage from the fire to a series of large propane storage spheres. Investigators saw substantial heat damage to equipment and piping in the propane de-asphalting unit. San Antonio-based Valero says tests by state regulators showed no impact off the site. Sunray is about 60 miles north of Amarillo.


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