Wednesday AM March 12th, 2008

There's not much to be optimistic about in a new economic forecast, except that there may not be an actual recession in 2008. The quarterly Anderson Forecast from the University of California at Los Angeles says the slumping housing market will eat away at job creation and consumer spending. The report says the country should be able to avoid a recession this year, but that it could still happen if the credit crisis deepens. That would keep consumers from buying big-ticket items like cars and prevent businesses from spending on equipment. The forecast anticipates the country's unemployment rate to grow to 5.5 percent by the end of the year. And it expects the gross domestic product to grow just 1.5 percent this year. The GDP had its weakest growth in five years last year, increasing just 2.2 percent.


The effort to get the word out to people eligible for economic stimulus payments is broadening. Next week, the IRS will begin to mail information packages to more than 20 million people who receive social security or Veterans Affairs benefits. The ten-page package will include items needed to file a 2007 tax form, a requirement to receive the payment. The mailing is intended for those who may be eligible for the payment, but aren't otherwise required to file a federal income tax return. In those cases, the payments to those who qualify are $300 per individual, and $600 for married couples. There's an additional payment of $300 for each eligible child under age 17. Plans call for the payments to begin going out in early May.


ExxonMobil says it has no intention of selling its Esso unit refinery, service stations or other assets in Argentina. The statement by the Irving-based oil giant is to squelch months of speculation about unsolicited purchase offers. Esso spokesman Thomas Hess told reporters that the multinational had decided to keep those refinery, retail and chemical product operations in Argentina. That's despite earlier reports it was considering offers. Reports that Exxon wanted to sell its refinery and service station assets in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay surfaced last August. Company officials had declined comment at the time. Companies reportedly interested in Esso's argentine assets included Brazil's state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro, or Petrobras, along with local investment groups. Esso has operated in Argentina for more than 90 years. ExxonMobil, through its local Esso unit, controls an estimated 12 percent of the argentine fuel market and operates two gas fields.


A company that plans to turn animal fat into biodiesel says it will delay a proposed plant in Clovis, New Mexico, by several months. Dallas-based American Renewable Fuels says the task of raising capital, coupled with an increase in the price of animal feed stock, prompted the delay. It's the second time a biodiesel plant has delayed construction in the area recently. Clovis Biodiesel earlier stopped construction on its $18 million plant, which had been slated to open this month. Officials said they hope to open the plant within a year. Also, Clovis ethanol parent company Conagra Foods dropped plans in January for its alternative fuel plant in Clovis, saying the ethanol market was too volatile.


Inspection results from retail food establishments├Ä┬żare now available from the Harris County Public Health & Environment Web site. Inspection results for the 6,300 retail food establishments in Harris County and 20 smaller cities are online. Violations are grouped into critical and non-critical violations, but only critical violations will be posted. Critical risks include improper holding temperatures, inadequate cooking, poor personal hygiene, contaminated equipment and food from unsafe sources. Searches can be made by the food establishment's name or part of the name, first letter of the name, street name, complete street address, zip code or type of establishment. HCPHES inspects one to six times yearly, depending on risk factors such as type of food prepared, how the food is prepared, how well the establishment has rated in the past, and the amount of control the manager has over food operations.


A new Web site hopes to help disabled workers find jobs. Job candidates can post resumes for review by prospective employers who have made a commitment to include people with disabilities in their workforce. According to the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics at Cornell University, the state employment rate of disabled working-age people in Texas was 39.8 percent in 2006. That compares to a rate of 79.7 percent for all others. The Center estimates that some 100,000 disabled Texans are actively looking for work.


The Houston Independent School District entered the bond market on Monday to sell $400 million bonds. That's nearly half its planned $805 million bond issue after interest rates dropped to 4.7 percent. That clears the way to begin construction of 24 new schools. Some 134 schools are being renovated, and new science labs are planned for middle and high schools. The district is spending $90 million on safety and security upgrades.

HISD's Booker T. Washington High School is receiving a $96,400 grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board through the Texas Association of Partners in Education to establish a financial literacy program for students. The school is also is receiving a $9,000 grant from Walt Disney and the National Association of Music Merchants to stage a production of Disney's "High School Musical."


American Airlines, Delta Airlines and Continental Airlines have raised round-trip ticket prices by as much as $10 to help recover record jet fuel costs. The fees are for most domestic markets in all ticket classes.


The Continental Airlines pilots union has approved an increase to its merger fund, according to the Houston Business Journal. The union says pilots at Continental are preparing themselves in case the airline becomes engaged in a potential merger.

Meanwhile, Continental has for the fifth consecutive time been rated the top airline in Fortune magazine's annual airline industry list of World's Most Admired Companies. Continental is the world's fifth-largest airline.


Boeing is protesting the recent $35 billion Air Force tanker contract awarded to European Aeronautic Defence and Space and Northrop Grumman. The high-stakes deal is to replace 179 air-to-air refueling tankers. The award is the first of three major Air Force contracts to replace its entire fleet of nearly 600 aging tankers over the next 30 years. Chicago-based Boeing says it filed the protest with the Government Accountability Office because of "irregularities'' in the contract competition.

A Boeing International Space Station team integrated Canada's Dextre robotic device for the launch today aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. The component will be added the ISS during shuttle mission STS-123. NASA hopes to complete the space station by 2010. At that time, the space shuttle will retire to make way for a new spacecraft that will return humans to the moon by 2020.


All NRG Texas power plants have now received OSHA's highest recognition for safe operations—approval into Occupational Safety & Health Administration's Voluntary Protection Programs. The NRG Texas plant in Wharton on State Highway 249/Tomball Parkway west of Sam Houston receives its VPP Star certification this morning.


The new Calhoun Lofts on the University of Houston campus will become the nation's first student housing outfitted with AT&T's U-verse service. The San Antonio-based company is deploying 1,000 television and high-speed Internet service connections in the $108 million residence hall that's currently under construction.


Nothing like a finding a bargain in stamps. The Postal Service says, shortly after plans were announced to increase first class postal rates by a penny, sales of the Forever stamp jumped by $95 million. The rate goes to 42 cents on May 12th. Before then, you can buy Forever stamps for 41 cents each and use them without penalty after the increase. The Postal Service says it has sold $2.3 billion worth of the new stamps since they were introduced less than a year ago.


A senator from North Dakota wants Congress to investigate whether the Transportation Department has broken the law by spending federal money on a program allowing Mexican trucks on U.S. roads. Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan called for the investigation by the Government Accountability Office. His announcement came a few hours after Transportation Secretary Mary Peters warned of economic losses if Mexican trucks are prohibited from driving deep into the U.S. She says halting the trucks would hurt the agricultural economy and other businesses. But Dorgan and others say Congress prohibited spending money on the program last year. Dorgan said the agency is violating the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits spending federal money that has not been authorized or appropriated. The Bush administration began allowing Mexican trucks full access to U.S. roadways last year to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement. The agreement also allows U.S. trucks into Mexico. Mexican trucks previously had to stop within a buffer border zone and transfer their loads to U.S. trucks. Some groups oppose trucks' entry fearing their drivers may compete with U.S. drivers or their trucks are unsafe.


Transportation engineers say global warming will have a dire impact on the nation's roads, rails, bridges, subways and waterways. The National Research Council sees heat-damaged expansion bridge joints and buckled rail tracks. The engineers also predict rising sea levels will flood coastal roadways and tunnels. They expect more powerful coastal storms will lead to surges, forcing evacuations and impacting airports and rail stations. A major complication to all of this is that more people are moving to coastal regions. The chairman of the Engineering Committee that prepared the report, Henry Schwartz, says "the threats to our transportation system are real.'' He notes that storms that were once-in-a-hundred-year events may now happen once every 50 years.


Florida's attorney general says Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise lines have agreed to reimburse passengers for fuel surcharges that were not adequately disclosed. The settlement affects 300,000 bookings--the number of customers involved was not immediately available--and will return $21 million to people nationwide who made trip deposits as of November 15th. The world's top two cruise operators announced in November they would start billing passengers to offset rising fuel prices--$5 per person, per day--for voyages beginning February 1st. Attorney General Bill McCollum received more than 300 complaints about the fuel surcharge, which other cruise operators also added, and launched an investigation into whether customers were made aware of the new fee when they made their bookings. In a statement released late Monday, McCollum praised the two Miami-based cruise lines for being proactive and taking steps in the best interest of their customers. Royal Caribbean spokesman Michael Sheehan says the company concluded that "taking this action would be the best thing to do.'' He says the agreement will have no effect on Royal Caribbean's revenue projections.


Cadbury Schweppes will complete the spinoff of its U.S. drinks business on May 7th. The British confectioner says it's secured credit agreements for itself and its Plano-based drinks unit. Analysts had predicted just last week that Cadbury would find it hard to raise money amid turmoil in the debt markets and that the deal might be delayed. Cadbury says a shareholder meeting to approve the spinoff of its American beverages unit is scheduled for April 11th, with the unit expected to list on the New York Stock Exchange on May 7th. Cadbury says definitive credit agreements for the unit to be named Dr Pepper Snapple Group have been signed. It also says investment grade capital structures are expected for both Cadbury and DPSG.


On the day Yao Ming was lost for the season, the headline in China's state-run English-language newspaper read "Olympic Dream Could Fade with Yao's Foot Injury.'' But the sky-high billboards that dot Beijing's skyline with Yao's likeness haven't gone anywhere. Despite the stress fracture in his left foot, an injury that will cause him to miss the rest of the NBA season, Yao's endorsement contracts remain very much intact leading to the Beijing games. In fact, the injury may have generated even more of a buzz in a country that boasts an estimated 300 million basketball fans, almost all viewing the 7-foot-6 center for the Houston Rockets as their number one national sports star.


Marathon Oil Chief Executive Clarence P. Cazalot, Jr., saw his total compensation rise 53 percent to $13.1 million in 2007. In that same a year, the company's profit fell but its share price climbed. That's according to an analysis of a proxy statement. Cazalot's pay package rose from the $8.5 million he got in 2006. One of the big differences was a $2.5 million cash bonus Cazalot received for 2007, plus another special cash performance bonus of $1.36 million. He got no cash bonus in 2006.

 

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