Thursday AM March 1st, 2007

Nationwide new home sales drop 16.5 percent...Bush credits CAFTA with increased U.S. exports to Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala...AT&T's cable TV push ramps back up after glitches...

New home sales hit the deep freeze in January. The Commerce Department says sales of new homes fell more than 16.5 percent, marking the biggest decline in over a decade. The bigger-than-expected drop leaves sales at the lowest level since early 2003. Declines were noted in each region of the U.S. New home prices were down 2.1 percent from a year ago. The median sales price of a new home stood at nearly $240,000 in January. A report this week on the larger piece of the housing market showed sales of existing homes rose three percent in January. That was the best showing in two years.


U.S. exports to four Central American countries grew more than 18 percent last year after the free-trade agreement with those nations, according to President Bush and Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca. Bloomberg News reports the growth in trade was led by exports of food, petroleum products and machinery. Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. CAFTA removes duties on 80 percent of the $15 billion in annual U.S. exports to the region and products from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala have duty-free access to the United States. All but Costa Rica have signed the accord. The Dominican Republic will sign the agreement soon.


AT&T's push into cable TV is ramping back up after a pause prompted by glitches. The San Antonio-based company says that the glitches have been resolved with network software upgrades. Over the past two weeks, AT&T resumed direct mailings and distribution of promotional "door hangers'' for the new U-Verse television service. It's the first marketing activities since those efforts were suspended starting in October. AT&T also plans to announce today that it is introducing U-Verse in parts of Milwaukee and Racine, Wisconsin, immediately, followed by the Dallas-Fort Worth market in early March and Kansas City later that month. Those four launches--bringing the total to 15 markets--are the first since nine cities were added at the end of December. U-Verse is delivered over a high-speed Internet connection. The company aims to keep and win customers with next-generation features melding TV sets, cell phones and computers.


If high school dropouts who currently head Texas households had earned diplomas, the state's economy would benefit from an additional $7 billion in wealth accumulated by families. That's according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report says Texas would have benefited through greater neighborhood stability, increased civic involvement and voting participation and reduced need for public assistance. The report says there are some 1.6 million families currently headed by high school dropouts. The alliance is a Washington, D.C.-based policy, research and advocacy organization working to increase graduation rates.


The Houston Technology Center and Direct Energy are partnering to support the development of emerging energy technology companies in Houston, according to the Houston Chronicle. The electric utility will donate $100,000 to the technology business incubator as part of the three-year deal, and become its electricity provider.


American Electric Power and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway want to build $3 billion of power lines in Texas, according to proposals filed with the state's public utility regulators. The plans include 1,000 miles of high voltage lines to transport wind-generated power, according to Electric Transmission Texas. The expansion would come in two stages, coming online in 2012 and 2015.


Calpine is expanding its gas-fired cogeneration plant at its Deer Park Center, according to the Houston Business Journal. The facility, ten miles east of Houston, went online in phases between 2003 and 2004. There are four gas combustion turbines and one steam turbine. Calpine plans to add two more gas combustion turbines.


Kinder Moran Energy Partners plans to invest up to $100 million to expand its biodiesel terminal facilities, according to the Houston Business Journal. Houston-based Green Earth Fuels will build biodiesel facilities at various KMP terminals. The firm has begun construction of an 86 million gallon facility at KMP's Galena Park Terminal on the Houston Ship Channel, with operations slated to begin in July.


Goodyear Tire and Rubber's U.S.-based retail and salaried employees should plan on some changes in their pension and retiree benefits. Starting next January 1st, current and future salaried retirees will be contributing more toward the cost of their medical benefits. And the defined benefit pension plan that provides a fixed monthly check for current salaried workers will be frozen at the end of 2008. It'll be replaced with enhanced 401-K savings accounts. The changes that will effect about 14,000 active employees and some 17,000 retirees and will be phased in over a two-year period.


A new Treasury Department survey finds some 40 percent of Americans believe that payments to bank accounts using paper checks are more secure than direct deposit. But a top department official says that assumption is wrong. The department is mounting what it calls its ''go direct'' campaign aimed at getting greater use of direct deposit by recipients of social security and supplemental security income payments, among others. Commissioner of the department's financial management service Kenneth Papaj says 80 percent of benefit payments are now done by direct deposit. Officials are hoping to get the remaining 20 percent to come aboard, to cut costs and reduce the risk of theft and fraud.


Houston-based transportation company EGL Chairman and CEO Jim Crane has found a new partnering source of equity in his plans to take the company private, according to the Houston Business Journal. Crane and New York-based private investment firm Centerbridge Partners and Toronto-based Woodbridge Company, Limited, submitted a proposal to acquire all the outstanding common stock of EGL. Crane is EGL's largest shareholder with about 18 percent of the outstanding shares.


Perry Properties has purchased 66 acres to complete the development of the Southern Colony subdivision in Fort Bend County, according to the Houston Business Journal. The $1.9 million acquisition will be for some 300 starter homes along FM 521 in Rosharon to be built by Trophy Homes and Royce Builders.


Members of the British-American Business Council Houston celebrated 25 years of promoting trade between the U.S. and the UK after their annual general meeting on Tuesday at the Intercontinental Hotel. The meeting included the awarding of Junior Achiever Scholarships from the British-American Foundation of Texas. Academically strong but financially-challenged high school students going into their senior year are given all-expense paid trips to the UK to participate in a ten-day journal-based literature and history summer program at the ACS International School in Cobham, England.


The online job site Jobster is offering free job postings for Texas employers, according to the Houston Business Journal. Jobster says it makes its money from hiring tools, including e-mail marketing campaigns, passive candidate database searches, job distribution and blog advertising. Job seekers can search from more than two million job opportunities, including more than 125,000 listings in Texas.


The nation's largest carrier is offering relief for folks in the cheaper seats--who gotta go. Fort Worth-based American says starting Thursday, coach passengers can use the lavatory in the first class section. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports the American rule change applies to domestic flights and to international flights leaving the U.S. American since 2003 has advised coach passengers not to use the first-class restrooms. Spokesman Tim Wagner says it was difficult to explain to customers sitting in the forward section of coach why they couldn't walk a few feet away and use the lavatory.


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