Thursday AM June 7th, 2007

Realtors predict continued softness in home sales...Gulf E&Ps form pipeline repair partnership for hurricanes or other emergencies...Eight percent of Houston IT officers expect to hire in the third quarter, according to Robert Half Technology...

The group representing the real estate industry looks for sales of new and previously-owned homes to continue falling this year. The latest forecast by the National Association of Realtors is for existing home sales to drop to 6.18 million from 6.48 million last year before rebounding to 6.41 million next year. The outlook for sales of new homes is for a total of 860,000 this year--jumping to 901,000 in 2008. More than a million new homes were sold last year. Homebuilding is expected to continue lagging the 1.8 million housing starts in 2006. The NAR is projecting that 1.43 million homes will be built this year and 1.49 million in 2007. As far as pricing is concerned, the trade group looks for declines of 1.3 percent and 2.3 percent for existing and new homes--respectively--this year, with the median price rebounding in 2008.

Some companies that work in the Gulf of Mexico have formed a partnership to expedite deepwater pipeline repairs after a hurricane or other emergency. But the equipment won't be available for this hurricane season, which runs June through November. The cooperative announced in Houston involves Enterprise Products Partners, Enbridge, BP and Eni Spa. They've agreed to buy $12 million worth of equipment that will be used to fix damaged pipelines after a storm or accident. Mike Stark with Enterprise Products Partners says the arrangement will allow the co-owners to have repair systems "readily available'' in an emergency. The concept for the new venture was hatched before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of the Gulf in 2005. Stress Engineering Services will manage the joint project.

HP and SCORE are holding a three-hour workshop this afternoon focusing on the unique needs of small businesses in dealing with hurricane preparedness. Business owners will hear about steps they can take to keep their business safe in the event of a storm, flood, fire or unexpected hard drive collapse. Solutions for protecting core assets, including customer records, accounting systems, technology, records and databases are being offered. The event is at 4 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Bush administration is cutting back on its expectations for economic growth during 2007. The new forecast by the white house is for the Gross Domestic Product to expand by 2.3 percent. The previous projection was 2.9 percent. A major factor in the downward revision is the housing slump. At the same time, the administration expects the economy will rebound and grow by a solid 3.1 percent in 2008 and 2009. The White House also is calling for the unemployment rate to drop from a six-year low of 4.6 percent in 2006—to 4.5 percent this year. And it says consumer prices should rise by 3.2 percent after coming in at 2.6 percent last year.

The Labor Department says first-quarter worker productivity wasn't as strong as first thought, and employee costs are higher than initially pegged. Revisions put productivity expanding at an annual rate of one percent. Productivity is defined as output per hours of work. It is considered key to maintaining living standards and restraining inflation. The estimate offered a month ago was a 1.7 percent rise. At the same time, unit labor costs, watched for inflation pressure, rose at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the first three months of the year. While that is an upward revision, it's well below the 8.9 percent pace seen in the final quarter of last year. The earliest labor costs estimate had been a gain of six-tenths.

A new report on job cuts seems to be in line with other indications of a steady labor market. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas says more than 71,000 job cuts were announced in May, up slightly from April. The May total was up 32 percent from May 2006. Challenger says downsizing in the computer industry played prominently in the May total, with makers of hardware, software and services announcing more than 13,000 job cuts last month. The firm says more than 337,000 job cuts have been announced so far this year. That's 8.5 percent below the number seen a year earlier.

Eight percent of Houston chief information officers expect to hire IT professionals in the third quarter, according to the latest Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Index and Skills Report. With one percent expecting IT staff reductions, a net seven percent of executives polled project hiring increases in the third quarter. Demand remains particularly strong for those skilled in sought-after specialties like database management and Web and applications development. Survey results are based on 200 CIOs in the Houston area.

Houston-based Synthesis Energy Systems Investments and Inner Mongolia Golden Concord Energy are partnering to build a coal gasification plant and methanol and DME production plant in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. The plant will use low value, abundant high-ash lignites from coal mines to meet the region's growing need for non-petroleum-based fuels and petrochemical feedstocks. The coal is from Golden Concord's coal mine in Inner Mongolia and other area mines, to be converted into a clean gaseous mixture called synthesis gas. The company says the system is a model they expect to apply to future business opportunities in the United States, as well.

Houston-based KBR says it's one of four companies being considered by the U.S. Navy for anti-terrorism projects valued at up to $500 million over five years. KBR is competing for fixed-price, indefinite-delivery and indefinite quantity contracts for individual projects under a Lockheed-Martin program. The work includes design, procurement, installation, integration and maintenance of equipment at Navy installations worldwide.

A report from public interest group Free Press says massive consolidation among U.S. radio stations has left women and minorities drastically underrepresented in broadcast media ownership. The study found that, even though women make up 51 percent of the population, they control just six percent of commercial radio stations. Racial or ethnic minorities, which make up 33 percent of the population, own just seven percent of radio stations. The group blames the FCC and Congress, saying they pursue policies that have made it harder for women and minorities to play a significant role in media ownership.

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