Friday AM January 4th, 2008

Factory orders increase by largest amount in four months...Christmas holiday affects unemployment numbers...Houston Business Journal distributes 2008 Book of Lists...

The Commerce Department says orders to U.S. factories in November surged by the largest amount in four months, rising 1.5 percent. The increase was driven by a jump in demand for oil as result of higher prices. Demand for big-ticket durable goods fell one-tenth of a percent. At the same time, a key gauge of business investment fell for a second straight month. Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft fell one-tenth of a percent after a bigger three percent drop in October. The number is watched closely as a gauge of business investment plans.


The number of newly laid-off workers filing for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week. But analysts say you shouldn't read too much into that, since much of the improvement is related to the Christmas holiday. The Labor Department says the number of people applying for jobless benefits totaled 336,000 last week. That's down by 21,000 from the previous week, when jobless claims had hit the highest level in more than two years. Last week's decline was more than double what had been expected. But analysts say it's difficult to gauge the strength of the labor market from the claims figures during holiday-shortened work weeks. Several states reported large declines in claims because their unemployment offices were closed on Christmas and Christmas Eve, allowing less time to file for benefits. The labor market is being closely watched as a gauge of whether the economy is slowing. The government releases its latest monthly unemployment report on Friday.


Houston-based ConocoPhillips said its global hydrocarbon production likely rose in the last three months of 2007 from the third quarter. The nation's third-largest oil company also says its oil and natural gas prices were higher. But the company says its domestic refining margins fell significantly in most regions during the October-December period versus the third quarter. It also says those margins were off slightly from the fourth quarter of 2006. Refining margins are the difference between what refiners pay for oil and what they're paid for products made from it. Those hurt many oil companies' earnings in the third quarter. The company provided the details in an overview of market and operating conditions for the recently completed fourth quarter. ConocoPhillips is scheduled to report fourth-quarter and full-year results January 23rd.


FMC Technologies has been awarded a $980 million contract to supply deepwater subsea processing and production systems to Total Exploration & Production Angola, according to the Houston Business Journal. The equipment will be used in Paris-based Total's project offshore Angola. FMC will supply three gas-liquid separation systems beginning in 2009.


American Airlines said that domestic traffic at the Fort Worth-based airline slipped in December. Both American and Houston-based Continental Airlines say their planes are less full than a year ago. American is the nation's largest air carrier. It says it boarded 7.9 million passengers in December, but its planes averaged 78.8 percent occupancy. That's down from 79.1 percent in December 2006. Domestic traffic fell 4.1 percent, swamping American's effort to manage lighter demand by reducing capacity 2.6 percent. It says rising international demand limited the overall traffic decline to one percent. Continental said that its unit revenue rose between 5.5 and 6.5 percent in December on higher traffic. Unit revenue, or sales divided by the number of seats available and distance flown, is a key measurement in the airline industry. Continental said traffic grew 1.9 percent, but that wasn't enough to make up for a percent increase in capacity. Consequently, average occupancy on flights fell to 78.7 percent from 79.5 percent a year ago. Continental also raised its estimate for the price it paid for fuel in the fourth quarter, to $2.51 per gallon--three cents higher than before.


The Houston Business Journal is distributing its 2008 Book of Lists to subscribers. It's a 282-page compilation of the year's lists of top performers in almost all industries, ranging from commercial and residential real estate to energy and finance companies, and from health and technology firms to travel and hospitality companies. HBJ publisher John Beddow says the book makes it clear that there is activity in a huge range of industries and business segments, with new players continuously entering the market.


Minneapolis-based Open Access Technology International has opened its first Texas office in Houston, according to the Houston Business Journal. Open Access provides risk management and compliance services to the electric and gas industries. The Houston office will provide technical, training and sales support for customers in this area.


Toyota overtook Ford to become the number-two automaker in U.S. sales in 2007. The Japanese car maker used new products to break Ford's 75-year lock on the position. Toyota sold 48,226 more cars and trucks than Ford, according to new sales figures. Toyota's sales were up three percent for the year, helped by new products like the Toyota Tundra pickup, which saw sales jump 57 percent. Ford's sales fell 12 percent, ending a year that is expected to be the worst for the auto industry since 1998. Ford's corporate historian says it is the first time since 1931 that Ford wasn't second behind General Motors.


Specialty insurance group HCC Insurance Holdings has acquired Indianapolis-based MultiNational Underwriters, according to the Houston Business Journal.


Protherm Services Group of Houston has agreed to be acquired by Georgia-based Brand Energy & Infrastructure Services, according to the Houston Business Journal. Protherm provides multi-craft services to the construction and maintenance industries.


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