Friday PM March 2nd, 2007

Gasoline prices surge upward in Houston and around the nation...SEC suspects insider trading in TXU buyout; TXU says investors have $24.6 billion in debt financing...

A survey shows that Texas motorists faced surging retail gasoline prices for the fourth week in a row. The weekly AAA Texas Gas Price Survey found regular-grade gas prices rose an average of 13 cents to $2.28 per gallon. The national pump price average rose 12 cents to $2.41 per gallon. Houston's average is up almost 13 cents to $2.25 a gallon.


ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva says his company has not yet talked with the Venezuelan government about that country's intent to take control of oil production projects, according to the Houston Chronicle. Before giving a speech at Rice University, Mulva told reporters time is running out to get a dialogue moving. In his speech, Mulva said international oil companies need to understand geopolitical issues and tailor strategies for building relationships to national oil companies. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has decreed that his country's national oil company will take majority control of foreign-run production projects by May 1st.


Federal regulators have charged that unknown individuals illegally profited from advance knowledge of the proposed $32 billion buyout of electric utility TXU Corporation. The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in Chicago alleging illegal insider trading in connection with what would be the largest private buyout in U.S. history. The SEC says "highly profitable and suspicious'' purchases of options on TXU stock on the Chicago Board options exchange occurred last month before the February 26th announcement that the company had signed a deal with private equity firms. The agency says it can't identify those involved because they purchased the options through foreign brokerage firms, which then cleared the trades through U.S. brokerages that executed them on the Chicago exchange. But these unknown defendants could reap more than $5.3 million in profits from their subsequent sales. The SEC is seeking unspecified restitution of trading profits and civil fines against the defendants.

TXU Corporation says investors buying the electric utility have lined up $24.6 billion in debt financing. The money would be used to complete what would become the largest leveraged buyout ever. Investors led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Texas Pacific Croup have agreed to buy TXU for about $32 billion. But they had not disclosed how much they would borrow against TXU to swing the deal. Today's TXU regulatory filing indicates that the buyers would contribute less than $8 billion to the deal. TXU says a "substantial majority'' of the new debt would be added to TXU's retail energy division.


Energy Maintenance Service Group has acquired Zaval-Tex, according to the Houston Business Journal, adding 300 employees to the EMS Group work force. Beaumont-based Zaval-Tex specializes in pipeline maintenance and related construction, pipeline rehabilitation and emergency response.


Teppco Partners has sold 50 percent of its interest in Mont Belvieu Storage Partners to Louis Dreyfus Energy Services for $168 million. Teppco purchased the facility from ConocoPhillips in 2004 for $34 million. Mont Belvieu is a liquified petroleum gas and natural gas liquid storage and fractionation hub.


Consumers have been losing confidence in the economy. Subscribers to the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index say the final February reading shows declines in both its current sentiment and expectations indexes. The index fell to 91.3 from January's 96.9. But it's unchanged from the preliminary February reading, as economists had expected. The Index for Consumer Expectations fell to 81.5 in February from 87.6 in January. That's a bigger drop than the preliminary February reading, which showed a decline to 83.7. The final February Current Sentiment Index dropped to 106.7, from 111.3 in January. That's also a bit lower than the preliminary February reading of 108.3. According to those who have seen the report, it also shows one-year inflation expectations remained at three percent in February but five-year expectations were a little lower at 2.9 percent, down from three percent in January.


Mortgage rates have dropped to the lowest level of the year. Mortgage giant Freddie Mac says 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages averaged 6.18 percent this week, down from 6.22 percent last week. The rate is now what it was in the first week of 2007, the low for the year. Analysts say this week's drop reflects weak economic data and the huge 416-point plunge in the stock market on Tuesday, which pushed investors to seek the safety of bonds. Freddie Mac says other types of mortgage rates edged down this week as well. Rates on 15-year, fixed-rate mortgages, a popular choice for refinancing, fell to 5.92 percent, down from 5.97 percent last week. Five-year adjustable rate mortgages edged down to 5.93 percent, compared with 5.96 percent last week. One-year arms were unchanged at 5.49 percent.


Federal bankruptcy judge Marvin Isgur has ordered the U.S. Trustee to provide more information about Money Management International's employment practices, according to the Houston Chronicle. The judge is probing whether the consumer credit counseling agency is refusing to hire counselors with bankruptcy in their backgrounds. MMI says its employment policy doesn't discriminate against those with bankruptcies in their past.


Insurance regulators in Louisiana are investigating whether Allstate Insurance is canceling policies without properly inspecting homes to see if they are occupied or under construction after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Louisiana Department of Insurance has received 386 complaints from homeowners who were notified by Allstate that their policies will not be renewed this year. That's according to Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon. Allstate says the company didn't send cancellation notices to policyholders without inspecting their property.


Texas is coming off back-to-back drought years. Texas agriculture had its worst single year ever in 2006 with $4.1 billion in crop and livestock losses. And parts of the state are still suffering. Much of the state, though, has gotten ample moisture in recent months and is much improved from a year ago. That may not last. Earlier this week, National Weather officials announced that the el Nino weather pattern that brought rain to the state since October has ended, and that the trend is toward la Nina conditions. That could mean a dry April through June in Texas. Says Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth: "it doesn't bode well for us.''


Shell Oil, which has headquarters in Houston, has been selected by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council as one of 16 businesses that are most women business-friendly, according to the Houston Business Journal. The non-profit Washington, D.C.-based WBENC chose the firms for their programs offering equal access for women's business enterprises in competing for and winning contracts for corporate goods and services.


The number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the United States declined by two this week to 1,752. Of the rigs running nationwide, 1,458 were exploring for natural gas and 290 for oil. That's according to Houston-based Baker Hughes. Four were listed as miscellaneous. A year ago, the rig count stood at 1,531. Texas lost two. Baker Hughes has tracked rig counts since 1944. The tally peaked at 4,530 in 1981, during the height of the oil boom. The industry posted several record lows in 1999, bottoming out at 488.


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