Thursday PM March 20th, 2008

An index designed to forecast future economic activity is signaling a rough patch ahead. The New York-based Conference Board says its Index of Leading Economic Indicators declined 0.3 percent in February following a revised drop of 0.4 percent in January. Board economist Ken Goldstein said economic signals "are flashing yellow.'' Meanwhile, the number of newly laid off workers filing for unemployment benefits rose last week to the highest level in nearly two months. It was another sign that the weak economy is having an adverse impact on the labor market.


The number of newly laid off workers filing for unemployment benefits rose last week to the highest level in nearly two months. It was another sign that the weak economy is having an adverse impact on the labor market. The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless benefits totaled 378,000 last week. That was an increase of 22,000 from the previous week. It was a far bigger increase than had been expected. The four-week average for new claims rose to 365,250, which was the highest level since a flood of claims caused by the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes.


Capital One is laying off some workers in Louisiana and Texas in a cost-cutting moving. The financial company will lay off 163 employees, or about nine percent of its New Orleans staff. Capital One will also cut 11 jobs in Shreveport and 23 in Houston. Spokesman Steven Thorpe says the credit card issuer and retail banker will cut support staff jobs in a wide range of departments beginning in May and through mid-2009. Employees were informed of the plans in staff meetings. Thorpe says affected employees will be offered severance packages and will have the opportunity to apply for other jobs within the company.


Houston city employees are counting contract ratification votes this evening at Solid Waste Management-Kelley on Neches. The contract is between the city of Houston and the Houston Organization of Public Employees. If ratified, the contract goes to the City Council for approval. A tentative agreement with the city was reached on March 5th, and city employees have been voting for the past two weeks. It would establish a minimum wage of $10 an hour for city workers by September 2009. The contract would also immediately create a $9.50 an hour minimum wage, which HOPE says is a 45 percent increase for the lowest-paid employees.


Russian news agencies are reporting the arrests of two Russians who also hold U.S. citizenship and have connections to the British Council and a British joint-venture oil company. The reports cite the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, as saying the men were detained March 12th while attempting to receive confidential information. The RIA-Novosti News Agency says one was the head of a project directed by the British Council and the other was an employee of TNK-BP, a major Russian oil company half-owned by Britain's BP. Police searched that company's offices Wednesday. The FSB claims to have found business cards of foreign military agencies and the CIA.


Three former Merrill Lynch executives are seeking more than 400 pages of notes taken by FBI agents during interviews with former Enron finance chief Andy Fastow. Daniel Bayly, James Brown and Robert Furst face a possible retrial after most of their convictions were overturned on appeal. They say those notes show that Fastow's statements corroborate their contention that an asset sale that the government claims was a disguised loan was genuine. The notes deal with Enron's sale of barge-mounted power plants to Merrill in late 1999 so Enron could book critical earnings. In their initial trial, as well as that of former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, defense teams were only given summaries of the FBI notes. Skilling's legal team received the raw notes last December after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the government to provide them.


The top bidders in the recently completed airwaves auction have been announced and the nation's top cell phone companies won big. Top bidders include AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the nation's two biggest cell phone carriers, dampening hopes that the auction would dramatically increase competition. Google was not among the winners, meaning the company will not be entering the cellular telephone business. The auction, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, set a record, raising $19.6 billion. Bidders were anonymous, but the agency released the names Thursday.


Energy companies Wednesday put down a record $3.67 billion in winning bids for the right to drill on federal leases off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Explorers snatched up 615 tracts in the central Gulf of Mexico. Companies issued another $64.7 million in winning bids for 36 drilling tracts in an area of the eastern Gulf that had been closed to drilling due to environmental concerns. Petroleum produced from the leases will be subject to a higher federal royalty rate. The Interior Department raised that rate last year to 18.75 percent from the previous 16.67 percent. Under the 2006 federal law that opened the eastern Gulf, 37.5 percent of the royalties will go to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas for coastal protection. The top single winning bid for an individual central gulf tract was $105.6 million by a partnership of Anadarko Petroleum, Murphy Exploration and Production and Samson Offshore. That ultra deepwater tract is about 180 miles south of New Orleans.


 

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