Tuesday AM March 18th, 2008

The broadest measure of foreign trade declined in 2007 as stronger growth in U.S. exports offset a soaring foreign oil bill. The Commerce Department reported Monday that the deficit in the current account dropped by nine percent last year to $738.6 billion. That represented a decline from an all-time high of $811.5 billion in 2006. The current account is the broadest measure of trade because it covers not only goods and services but also investment flows between the United States and other countries. It also represents the amount of dollars flowing into foreign hands to finance the country's overall trade deficit.


Industrial output has fallen by the sharpest amount in four months, providing yet another gloomy reading on the state of the economy. The Federal Reserve said Monday that output at the nation's factories, mines and utilities dropped by one-half percent in February, the biggest decline last October. It was a far weaker reading than the slight increase of one-tenth of one percent that many analysts had been expecting. It served to underscore the severity of the current economic slowdown.


When phone companies tussle over contracts they have with each another, those fights get kicked up to federal regulators to referee. AT&T and rival Sprint Nextel are in a dispute over fees to use one another's voice networks. The nation's largest phone company doesn't want Sprint expanding a no-fee deal to nearly half the country. So it's taken the fight from the states to the Federal Communications Commission. If San Antonio-based AT&T doesn't get its way, Sprint can go fee-free into 22 states and potentially cost its rival millions in annual revenue. Carriers routinely negotiate so-called interconnection agreements so they can exchange customer calls on each others' networks. The agreements contain rates that phone companies charge competitors to connect calls. Carriers sometimes agree not to bill each other for traffic on their networks. It's an arrangement known as "bill and keep'' that AT&T and two Sprint Nextel subsidiaries have had in nine states. Last year, Sprint decided it wanted to expand the arrangement to all it subsidiaries where AT&T operates.


The Texas economy has bucked the increasingly dire national downturn so far. That's largely because of a thriving oil and gas industry and healthy employment rates. But experts warn that Texas isn't immune to the effects of the souring economy and typically lags national trends by several months, according to an Associated Press analysis. Other states are facing deficits. They're having to propose cuts to government health care to children, disabled and the elderly. But lawmakers in Texas so far expect to have enough money when they convene in January to write a state budget without such cuts. A healthy oil industry in Texas means stout employment rates. It also helps the state because proceeds from oil and gas production taxes are divvied up among public education and the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund. Several billion dollars are expected to be sitting in the fund by the time lawmakers meet next January. Further padding the next two-year budget, lawmakers expect to have more than $8 billion left over from the last spending cycle.


Houston American Energy is selling its 1.6 percent interest in the Caracara Prospect in Colombia for $920 million, according to the Houston Business Journal. The company has seven other interests in Colombia.


Houston-based BMC Software is purchasing BladeLogic in a $800 million transaction. BladeLogic is a data center automation company based in Lexington, Massachusetts. BMC sells software for improving and automating information technology systems.


The United States Bowling Congress is relocating its headquarters from Greendale, Wisconsin to Arlington, bringing nearly 200 jobs and $13 million in capital investment. The business said a $693,000 award from the Texas Enterprise Fund was a critical factor in its decision to relocate to Texas.


Real estate closings can be reduced to 20 minutes or less with new touch-screen technology being launched this month by Houston-based Stewart Information Services, according to the Houston Business Journal. TouchSign will allow navigation through closing documents by touch screens to provide consent and signature.


Smith & Wollensky is holding its annual Houston Taxi Appreciation Day today. Taxi drivers are invited to the Highland Village Shopping Center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a complimentary 10-ounce Wollensky's Butcher Burger, as an appreciation for taxi services.


The chairman and chief executive of San Antonio-based Valero Energy earned $14.5 million last year. That nearly doubled the salary of Bill Klesse from the year before. The San Antonio-based refiner says in a proxy statement filed with federal regulators that Klesse received a salary of $1.5 million and a bonus of $3.7 million. The rest of his came from incentive bonuses and stock and stock option awards. The sizable pay hike came as North America's largest oil refiner's stock rose about 40 percent in 2007. The year also was marked by a margin squeeze as crude prices soared, and Valero struggled to pass higher costs onto drivers and other consumers. San Antonio-based Valero has 17 refineries in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. In the last year, it's announced plans to upgrade and expand its operations at its Port Arthur refinery while looking at the possible sale of three other facilities.

 

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