Friday AM December 21st, 2007

Gross Domestic Product grew at 4.9 percent pace in third quarter...New applications for jobless benefits grows...Reuters/Zogby poll indicates optimism for new year, despite worries about U.S. economy...

There's word that the economy sprinted ahead at its fastest pace in four years during the summer. The Commerce Department reports that the Gross Domestic Product grew at a 4.9 percent pace in the July-to-September quarter, unchanged from an estimate made a month ago. GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States. The performance was especially impressive given deepening problems in the housing market. Builders cut spending on housing projects at an annualized rate of 20.5 percent, the most in 16 years. Housing and credit woes are believed to be taking a toll, though. The economy's growth from October through December is expected to have slowed to a pace of just 1.5 percent or less. The collapse of the once high flying housing market, a mortgage meltdown and a painful credit crunch, have propelled home foreclosures to record numbers. There's concern that people will cut back on their spending and throw the economy into a recession.


In a possible sign of a softening job market, more people signed up for unemployment benefits last week. The Labor Department says new applications for jobless benefits rose by 12,000 to 346,000. That's a larger increase than economists were expecting. The four-week moving average of new claims for unemployment benefits also rose last week, to its highest level in two years.


Americans are heading into 2008 in a more upbeat mood compared to the past several months, according to a new Reuters/Zogby telephone poll. That's despite worries that the new year may bring negative news for the U.S. economy. This latest poll shows the first increase in American confidence measured by the Reuters/Zogby Index since polling for it began this past summer. But just one in four likely voters believe the U.S. is headed in the right direction, compared to 67 percent who say the country is on the wrong track.


Houston-based Swift Energy is selling some New Zealand assets to subsidiaries of Origin Energy Ltd. in a deal worth $87.8 million, according to the Houston Business Journal. Several other deals will be made for the sale of the remainder of its New Zealand assets.


Basell has completed its acquisition of Houston's Lyondell Chemical, creating the world's third-largest independent chemical company. Lyondell owns a large oil refinery in Houston. The Dutch company announced the transaction last July. LyondellBasell has about 4,800 employees in Houston, which will be headquarters for the company's chemicals and fuels division and finance office. A polyolefins division will be based in The Netherlands. The combined company's new headquarters is being moved to Rotterdam.


Houston-based Quanta Services is set to begin a six-year, $750 million transmission infrastructure deal with Northeast Utilities, according to the Houston Business Journal.


Blockbuster's boosting prices of its DVD-by-Mail Service for new customers and some existing ones by up to 40 percent. The Dallas-based movie rental giant has begun notifying customers of the increases--and some price cuts. The hikes caused an immediate buzz on internet message boards. Blockbuster offers several plans for subscribers who order movies online and receive them in the mail. The most popular plan lets customers keep three DVDs at any time and exchange up to five DVDs per month at a local Blockbuster store for a free rental. That plan will rise from $17.99 to $19.99 per month for new customers and some existing ones, beginning December 27th. The top-of-the-line plan, in which customers can keep three DVDs out and get unlimited free in-store exchanges, will go from $24.99 to $34.99 per month. That's a 40 percent increase.


Houston-based FMC Technologies has acquired full ownership of CDS Engineering. FMC had owned 91 percent of the Belgian gas and liquids separation technology company since April. It had purchased a majority ownership in 2003.


Superior Offshore International is selling a deepwater construction and dive support vessel for about $70 million, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston subsea contractor says the "Superior Achiever" will be delivered by the end of 2008. The purchaser agrees to charter the vessel back to Superior for a five-year term.


Officials have recalled about 5,500 pounds of basil grown in Mexico and sold in the U.S. because it could be contaminated with salmonella. Importer Top Line Specialty Produce of Los Angeles says the basil was imported from a farm in Mexico's Southern Baja California region on December 5th. It was sold to food distributors in Texas, southern California and Illinois the following day. Spokesman Alberto Martinez says the distributor sold the basil to restaurants and other food service customers. It's unknown whether the other distributors sold to food service customers or retailers. U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors detected the possible contamination during a random check of the basil at the Otay Mesa border crossing.


Leaders of striking television writers are set to meet with David Letterman's production company to try to reach a separate deal. An agreement from today's meeting could make the "Late Show'' the only late-night show on the air with a writing staff. The Writers Guild announced last week that it would negotiate with production companies separately. That was seen as a sign that writers would be able to work out something with Worldwide Pants, the Letterman-owned company that produces his show as well as Craig Ferguson's. But it hasn't worked out that way, a possible sign that some union members may be having second thoughts. Talk show hosts Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel have said they'll resume their programs on January 2nd without writing staffs. Letterman is also aiming for a January 2nd return.


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