Wednesday PM August 1st, 2007

National pending home sales figures improve...Marathon Oil pays $1 million to settle oil price manipulation allegations...Dresser-Rand announces $1 billion in contracts...

Things may be looking a bit brighter for the housing market in the months ahead. The pending home sales index compiled by the National Association of Realtors rose five percent in June. It is the best showing since an increase of more than six percent in March 2004. However, the index, a forward-looking indicator based on pending home sales, was still down more than eight and a-half percent from June of last year. The association's senior economist points out that it is still too early to say if home sales have already hit bottom. Lawrence Yun says major declines in home sales are likely to have occurred already and that further declines, if any, "are likely to be modest.''

Federal regulators say Marathon Oil will pay a $1 million fine to settle allegations that it tried to manipulate crude oil prices in late 2003. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission said Houston-based Marathon tried to influence the price of crude delivered at Cushing, Oklahoma, in November 2003. The commission said Marathon tried to artificially lower prices for West Texas intermediate crude oil calculated by Platts, which is a division of McGraw-Hill Companies. As a purchaser of crude oil, Marathon stood to benefit from lower prices. Marathon, in a court filing, neither admitted nor denied the government's charges. Marathon disclosed the government's allegations in a May filing with Securities and Exchange Commission.

Federal experts say U.S. crude oil stockpiles fell by 1.9 percent last week as refiners increased their gasoline production. The data helped propel oil prices to a record intraday high above $78 per barrel. The Federal Energy Information Administration said that U.S. oil inventories fell by 6.5 million barrels to 344.5 million barrels for the week ending July 27th. It says gasoline stockpiles rose by 0.3 percent last week to 204.7 million barrels. Inventories of the motor fuel, which have been steadily increasing in recent weeks, were 2.9 percent below year-ago levels. U.S. refineries ran at 93.6 percent of their total production capacity on average. That's up 1.9 percentage points from the previous week. The report also showed that stocks of distillate fuel, which include diesel and heating oil, rose by 2.9 million barrels to 126.5 million barrels. At the pump, gas prices fell a penny overnight to a national average of $2.87 a gallon. That's according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Retail gas prices are down from a late May peak of $3.23. The price of light, sweet crude for September delivery rose 41 cents to $78.62 per barrel in Wednesday morning's trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That beat the previous intraday record of $78.40 set last summer. The contract settled at $78.21 a barrel on Tuesday, beating the previous record close of $77.03, set July 14th, 2006.

Houston-based Dresser-Rand has three contracts to supply equipment for onshore and offshore projects, according to the Houston Business Journal. They include two five-year agreements with Norway's Statoil worth about $1 billion. Another $154 million contract under an existing agreement with BP supplies turbomachinery for a floating production, storage and offloading vehicle.

Twenty-nine companies have won a federal computer systems contract potentially worth up to $50 billion over ten years. Among the companies winning the contract are Plano-based Electronic Data Systems and San Antonio-based AT&T. The General Services Administration said the five-year contract also has five one-year options. It covers most technology services, such as computer design, software engineering and systems integration. The so-called Alliant contract is open to all federal agencies, including the Defense Department, and getting on the long-anticipated contract is a big deal for the companies. But analysts point out that the winners aren't necessarily guaranteed work from the agencies. Agencies will issue orders for services through the government-wide contract and the companies will have to bid on them. Agencies can also choose to go on their own.

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