Tuesday June 20th, 2006

Insurance claims follow heavy rains…Energy Department predicts 71 percent surge in energy demand by 2030…Governor Perry hosts Houston small business summit… Insurance agents are hearing from Houstonians in the aftermath of this week’s heavy rain and flooding, according to the Houston Chronicle. Homeowners and drivers are reporting water damage to cars and a few inches […]

Insurance claims follow heavy rains…Energy Department predicts 71 percent surge in energy demand by 2030…Governor Perry hosts Houston small business summit…

Insurance agents are hearing from Houstonians in the aftermath of this week’s heavy rain and flooding, according to the Houston Chronicle. Homeowners and drivers are reporting water damage to cars and a few inches of water in homes. State Farm received 300 home and 375 auto claims by Monday evening, according to the company’s Kevin Davis. Allstate received claims for water-damaged cars and homes and tree limbs falling on homes. Drivers with comprehensive auto coverage are covered for damage caused by something other than a collision, such as flooding. A loaner car can be reimbursed while repairs are being made, if they bought rental reimbursement coverage.

The Energy Department predicts global economic growth will fuel a 71 percent surge in energy demand from 2003 through 2030. The Energy Information Administration says there will be sufficient supply to meet that demand. Oil’s share of the total market will decline to about a-third over the next couple of decades. It was put at 38 percent in 2003. The U.S., China and India account for most of the projected increase in world oil use. The EIA sees world oil prices in 2025 some 35 percent higher than forecast in last year’s report. The latest outlook puts crude oil at about $57 a barrel in 2030. That would actually be cheaper than the current price of crude. The additional crude needed to meet global demand is seen coming mostly from non-OPEC countries.

Internal auditors are gathered at the Hilton Americas-Downtown this week to discuss best practices and attend professional development sessions. Trish Harris with the Institute of Internal Auditing says conferees are learning how to best help management reach goals and objectives.

“Internal auditing is all about risk governance and internal controls. The internal auditors are the folks within the organization who look at risk throughout the organization and insure that the controls in place are adequate to mitigate those risks. Not only financial risks, but risks to the reputation of the organization, compliance risks, risks that have to do with the strategy of the organization.”

Harris says the role of internal auditors is often misunderstood.

“The internal auditors are integral to the organization. They understand the organizational culture, they understand the policies and procedures. They understand the ethical environment within the organization. Whereas, external auditors are people on the outside of the organization who come in and look at the financial statements and attest to those financial statements, but they are independent of the organizations that they audit.”

Internal auditors help companies improve efficiencies and operations.

“They’re there to help management and the board meet goals and objectives, and so their role in the organization is to look at efficiencies, effectiveness, economy throughout the organization, and to help management and the board see where the gaps are. They’re to help improve operations and to recognize where improvements can be made.”

More than 2,500 internal auditors are discussing ethics, integrity, fraud and the impact and implication of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation at the three-day conference.

Three former natural gas traders–including one from Houston–pleaded guilty to price manipulation charges. Paul Atha of Houston was a trader for Mirant. Also pleading guilty to conspiring to report fictitious trades to an industry newsletter called Inside FERC were Christopher Joseph McDonald, formerly of Atlanta-based Mirant, and Michael Whalen, who worked for Cincinnati-based Cinergy. They face a maximum five-year term when sentenced later this year.

The House has approved a bill that calls for up to 30 years in prison for anyone convicted of fraudulently using disaster relief funds. The action comes after Congressional investigators reported that up to $1.4 billion of aid handed out after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was spent for bogus reasons. That included pro football tickets, a one-week Caribbean vacation and a sex-change procedure. The bill creates a new federal crime, in hopes of deterring the fraud. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner says it became clear the bill was needed after ”fraudsters and scam artists went into high gear.” The bill calls for a fine of up to $1 million and a prison terms of up to 30 years for fraud connected to a declared major disaster or emergency. While mail and wire fraud currently carry similar penalties, the maximum prison term for making a false statement to the government is five years.

The Internal Revenue Service is providing additional time to file 2004 and 2005 individual income tax returns for taxpayers hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. The IRS granted a postponement through October 16th for 31 Louisiana parishes, 49 Mississippi counties and 11 Alabama counties.

Governor Rick Perry today hosted a small business summit in Houston at the Westin–part of a series of such summits around the state in support of small business. Perry encouraged local small business owners to take advantage of opportunities presented at the summit, including advice on securing growth capital, utilizing health savings accounts and becoming certified as a Historically Underutilized Business. He said representatives from 26 state agencies were present to explain how to effectively bid for government contracts. Perry used the occasion to praise the school finance package passed by the Legislature, which he says cuts property taxes by 33 percent.

Representatives of small businesses are on Capitol Hill this week lobbying for passage of a bill that would let them form professional associations to purchase affordable health benefits. National Federation of Independent Business President Todd Stottlemyer says the house has passed such legislation eight times, while the Senate refuses to give its approval. A month ago, the measure fell five votes short. According to the federation, a majority of small-business owners list health-care costs as a critical problem. Stottlemyer says the smallest firms stand to save the most from small business health plans. Their administrative costs, which account for a significant percentage of their expenses, will decline significantly.

The average U.S. pump price for regular gasoline fell 3.5 cents to $2.87 a gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The government surveys some 800 filling stations each week. Pump prices were highest in California, where they declined 2.7 cents to $3.19 a gallon, and lowest in the Gulf States such as Texas and Louisiana, where they fell to $2.77 a gallon.

The government tells of a better-than-expected pickup in new home and apartment construction last month. The five percent increase in housing starts marks the first improvement since January. It is stronger than expected. The Commerce Department says builders started construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than 1.9 million units. Permits for new construction dropped by 2.1 percent. The report comes a day after the National Association of Home Builders reported builder confidence had slipped to an 11-year low.

The Houston-based African Disaster Relief Fund hosts an invitation-only Leadership Breakfast on Wednesday morning at the Intercontinental Hotel on West Loop South. The fund was started last September by a group of Africans in Houston to assist in relief efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. the ADRF has developed a first-response unit equipped with water, food and medical supplies to serve stricken areas, and has developed partnerships with local groups and businesses involved in relief efforts.

The developer of a market considered part of the effort to revive downtown Dallas says he’ll tell investors to stop funding the upscale grocery. The Urban Market was the first grocery to open as part of the downtown renewal effort. But it’s lost more than $1 million since opening last summer in a former interurban trolley depot. Investors in the building, which houses loft apartments above the grocery and cafe, are asking the city to speed payment of more than $4 million in tax incentives. A City Council committee debated the issue yesterday but delayed a decision until at least next week. Dallas is trying to lure residents downtown, which is deserted after office workers go home for the night.

The Texas Department of Transportation’s 20-year-old public service campaign slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas” has been nominated as one of America’s all-time favorite slogans. The third annual Advertising Week Walk of Fame competition also includes Nike’s “Just Do It,” Maxwell House’s “Good to the Last Drop” and “Got Milk?” from the California Milk Processors Board. Austin-based advertising firm GSD&M created the “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan, filming PSA spots for television with the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and other Texas celebrities.

There’s word today that the number of millionaires around the world rose to 8.7 million last year. That’s half a-million more than the population of New York City. The report from Merrill Lynch and a consulting firm reports the millionaires are investing more aggressively. They’re putting cash in emerging markets and taking it out of more conservative fixed-income holdings. The Middle East saw nearly ten percent growth in millionaires. Record oil revenues and soaring stock markets pushed 300,000 people over the million-dollar mark. North America held a slight edge over Europe in the population of millionaires, with 2.9 million to Europe’s 2.8 million.

When a new Union Pacific engineer starts training, the student practices in a locomotive simulator. At first, a trainer lets the student drive the virtual train 20 miles without much instruction. Then the education begins. The lessons are important because engineers significantly affect how much fuel is burned by the Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad’s 8,000 locomotives. And that adds up quickly, because the railroad burns about 3.25 million gallons of diesel a day. The nation’s second-largest railroad, Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe, also teaches its engineers techniques to help conserve diesel. A Burlington Northern spokesman says BNSF has also bought more than 2,500 new locomotives over the past few years. Novice engineers are taught such methods as slow acceleration, limited idling and anticipating conditions on the track ahead. But the most important lesson for engineers is to let gravity do a lot of the work.

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