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Tuesday August 1st, 2006

CenterPoint Energy settlement could lead to electric rate reductions…Judge to delay setting trial date for NatWest Three…Small businesses to discuss contracts with corporations and government agencies… Mayor Bill White is praising the settlement of a rate case between CenterPoint Energy and the City of Houston that will result in electric rate reductions and new spending […]

CenterPoint Energy settlement could lead to electric rate reductions…Judge to delay setting trial date for NatWest Three…Small businesses to discuss contracts with corporations and government agencies…

Mayor Bill White is praising the settlement of a rate case between CenterPoint Energy and the City of Houston that will result in electric rate reductions and new spending on low-income assistance and energy conservation. The settlement freezes rates until June 30th, 2010, although the rate could be adjusted for changes related to transmission costs. The settlement could result in about $58 million per year in combined rate reductions over the next four years. CenterPoint plans to implement the new base rates later this fall, pending approval by the Public Utility Commission. Reliant Energy customers could then see lower power bills, although retail electric providers are not required to pass on their savings.

A federal judge says the setting of a trial date is on hold while two of three former bankers from England facing Enron-related charges secure new attorneys. The men were extradited to Houston two weeks ago to face criminal charges for their roles in having their former employer sell back its stake in a deal tied to Enron. David Bermingham has an attorney, but Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew say they need more time to hire lawyers for their trial, which had been scheduled to start September 11th. U.S. Magistrate Stephen Smith said he will wait to set a trial date. The defendants have secured portions of their $1 million bonds, but Bermingham and Darby have until late October to raise additional funds or remain in government custody. Mulgrew says securing additional bond money has affected his ability to retain an attorney. The three must live separately and must wear electronic monitoring devices. The three were executives with Greenwich NatWest, now the Royal Bank of Scotland, and each face seven counts of wire fraud.

After just nine weeks, the 740-megawatt power plant founded by Enron in the Indian state of Maharashtra has shut down again because of the short supply of naphtha. The Dabhol plant was restarted April 30th using naphtha as fuel, after being idle since May 2001. Enron collapsed later that year. India’s federal power minister told lawmakers the cost of power generated by the plant’s three turbines is unacceptable. India has exempted naphtha imports from customs taxes, but supply constraints remain. The plant was renamed Ratnagiri Gas & Power last year when lenders to the project took over the plant.

The day-long Business Matchmaking event at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Wednesday provides hundreds of small businesses with the opportunity to meet with federal, state and local government agencies and large corporations for potentially millions of dollars in contracts. John Dayan with HP’s Personal Systems Group says the event is designed to…

“To match small companies across the United States with federal, state and local government agencies as well as large corporations that actually have business that they want to do. It started in 2003. It’s been a very successful program. To date, there have been over $700 million in contracts resulting directly from Business Matchmaking. We have facilitated more than 40,000 face-to-face meetings between small business owners and various procurement representatives. So the idea is that there is a sort of a consortium, if you will, of partners who are strong advocates for small business. Obviously, small business is a huge part of HP’s business, and this is an opportunity for networking. It’s an opportunity for, you know, local, regional, community-level sponsorship of small businesses.”

Business Matchmaking is produced in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, SCORE and HP.

“Hewlett-Packard will have eight contracts there, for example, or procurement people. Fed-Ex/Kinko’s, you know, in previous events we’ve had American Airlines, Bridgestone, NASA, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Energy and Homeland Security. It’s a mix of private and public sector buyers. We would just encourage everybody, if you need more information or you want to know more about this program, to visit the Web site, which is, and that’s small businesses can go to learn more about this program.”

Dayan says Business Matchmaking is set up much like “speed dating,” allowing some 2,000 face-to-face meetings lasting 15 minutes each between small business representatives and procurement officials.

“It’s all different types of small- and medium-sized businesses. It is also an opportunity for some of those underserved small businesses to have the opportunity to make connections with, you know, large private and public sector buyers. Small businesses will sit next to buyers for private and public companies, then they’ll talk about the business opportunities that they have. The sessions, they all happen simultaneously in this large room with these, you know, round-top tables, and it’s usually one-on-one with a buyer and a small business seller. The announcer will tell them to go and they basically get up and they move over to the next area.”

About 57 percent of participants in previous matchmaking events were minority-owned businesses and 40 percent were women-owned firms.

Woodlands-based CB&I has been awarded a contract worth more than $1 billion to build a liquified natural gas import terminal near Sabine Pass for Golden Pass LNG Terminal. The project is expected to create more than 1,000 construction jobs. The site will have two ship unloading berths, five full-containment LNG storage tanks and a regasification and sendout system. Engineering, procurement and site preparation activities have begun, and the terminal is scheduled to start up in 2009. Supplies will come primarily from offshore Qatar.

The proposed merger of Oklahoma City-based Kerr-McGee into Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum is one step closer to completion. The companies announced the merger on June 23rd and federal authorities had until midnight Monday to raise any anti-trust objections. None has been raised. The merger remains subject to approval by Kerr-McGee stockholders and they meet on August 10th to vote. The agreement calls for Kerr-McGee stockholders to be paid $70.50 for each share they own.

New figures from the government show consumer spending rose a modest four-tenths of one percent in June. And underscoring the pressure many consumers are feeling, a key measure of inflation rose at the fastest pace in more than a decade. The Commerce Department also reports that, after adjusting for inflation, consumer spending rose two-tenths of one percent. Incomes rose six-tenths of a percent. A measure of inflation watched closely by the Federal Reserve rose two-tenths of one percent, up 2.4 percent over the past year. The Federal Reserve meets a week from now to decide interest rate policy. Over the past couple of years, it has been boosting short-term rates hoping to curb inflation pressures. Wall Street is watching closely for signs that the Fed might be nearly finished raising rates.

A new report says the number of job cuts announced fell sharply last month. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas says employers announced some 37,000 job cuts last month–a six-year-low. Challenger says that’s down some 50 percent from June. It is said to be down sharply from the same month a year earlier as well. CEO John Challenger says summer months are typically a time of lower job cutting, in part because many bosses are away on vacation. Challenger cautions that the final four months of the year typically bring the heaviest job cutting.

A closely watched gauge of the nation’s manufacturing sector shows more strength than expected. The Institute for Supply Management says its July index registers 54.7, a gain of nine-tenths of one percent from June. Any number above 50 indicates growth. Measures of new orders, production and employment were on the rise. So was the group’s prices index, accelerating at a faster rate. The ISM’s survey chair Norbert Ore says manufacturing is proving to be ”quite resilient in the face of higher interest rates and weakening consumer spending.”

The government says construction activity posted a modest gain in June, rising to a record level. The Commerce Department says construction spending rose three-tenths of one percent to a seasonally adjusted annual level of $1.22 trillion. Government spending helped offset weakness in housing. In fact, housing construction fell for a third straight month. Analysts expect that rising interest rates will continue to dampen the housing market.

Employers say lawmakers need to design a quick and accurate system for verifying electronically whether job applicants can legally work in this country. The employers spoke in Plano yesterday to a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. They say current programs have high error rates and sometimes take days before responding. The House and Senate have competing bills that include requirements for employers to check the legal status of workers through an electronic program. The system aims to detect document fraud by applicants and deter employers from seeking out illegal workers. Many businesses have declined to participate in a voluntary program that tries to verify social security numbers and check them against other federal databases. Both chambers passed contrasting border security and immigration bills months ago. Republicans then opted to hold hearings on immigration legislation. Yesterday’s hearing was the third in a series organized by the larger House committee.

The Internal Revenue Service is teaming up with tax professionals to set up a new system that’ll let people apply online to set up payment plans for back taxes. Members of tax professional organizations will be able to use the new online payment agreement system to apply for payment plans for clients who owe taxes. This will eliminate the need to write or call the IRS toll-free number for help. When it’s implemented fully, the system will make it easier for taxpayers on their own or with the help of tax professionals to resolve tax liabilities. The IRS estimates that 90 percent of taxpayers who qualify for a payment agreement will be able to use the system before year’s end.

Houston-based InterFit Health plans to open 16 health clinics inside Walgreens drug stores in Atlanta by the end of the year. InterFit has RediClinics in 11 stores already, including five in Houston-area HEB stores, staffed by registered nurses with master’s degrees. InterFit plans to add 75 more clinics nationwide within the next year.

Electronic Data Systems today posted a profit four times higher than last year’s quarter. The Plano-based computer services contractor also reports a twofold second-quarter increase in contract signings. That’s an indicator of future revenue. However, the company issued a third-quarter earnings forecast that’s below analysts’ expectations. EDS says it earned $104 million for the quarter ended June 30th. It says it would have earned $107 million in the quarter but for losses from discontinued operations and reversal of previously recognized restructuring costs. Revenue rose almost four percent to $5.19 billion–also beating wall street expectations.

The biggest electricity producer in Texas today reports its second-quarter profit rose 31 percent–on brisk demand for power. Dallas-based TXU had quarterly net income of $497 million in the quarter that ended June 30th. That’s up from year-ago earnings of $375 million. High natural gas prices pushed electricity rates higher. Chairman John Wilder defended TXU’s decision to spend $10 billion on building 11 new coal-fired plants. Wilder says coal plants will be cheaper to operate and pollute less than the older plants they’ll replace. The new units also will reduce dependence on costly natural gas.

Valero Energy said its second-quarter earnings more than doubled from a year ago to the highest level in company history. That’s as gasoline and distillate margins continued robust growth at the San Antonio-based refiner and retailer. Net income after paying preferred dividends grew to $1.9 billion for the three months ended June 30th. Operating revenue climbed 48.5 percent to $26.78 billion. Operating income for the company’s refining segment more than doubled to $3 billion.

Whole Foods Market says its most recent quarterly profit increased by one-third as the upscale grocer added square footage and some big gains in same-store sales. But sales fell short of Wall Street forecasts, raising the prospect of slower future growth. Whole Foods shares tumbled more than seven percent in late-session trading. The Austin-based company said yesterday it earned $53.9 million, in the three months ended July 2nd. That’s compared with $40.4 million, in the same period last year.

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison wants Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to back off reviewing a plan to lift restrictions at Dallas Love Field. Hutchison backs a compromise on the long haul-flight restricting Wright Amendment. Hutchison today sent a letter to Gonzales asking him to recuse the Justice Department from input on the bill. She says the compromise should instead be reviewed by the Transportation Department, with jurisdiction over aviation law and policy. The deal was forged by leaders of Dallas and Fort Worth, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. Southwest calls Love Field home. American’s main hub is DFW Airport. The 1979 Wright Amendment was enacted to protect then-fledgling DFW. The compromise would repeal the amendment in eight years and reduce gates at Love Field from 32 to 20. A Justice Department staff memo has raised antitrust concerns.

Former online gambling CEO David Carruthers pleaded not guilty at a hearing in St. Louis on federal racketeering and wire fraud charges. Carruthers was among several defendants from the online gambling company Bet-On-Sports and its associates who pleaded not guilty today on a 22-count indictment for illegal online gambling. His hearing was later than the others because he was en route from Dallas. No one appeared on behalf of the Bet-On-Sports Corporation. A lawyer appeared for DME Global Marketing, which does work for Bet-On-Sports, and pleaded not guilty. U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Ann Medler set a hearing date of August 21st for the defendants who appeared but said that date may be postponed. All of those who appeared at today’s arraignment are free on bond, except Carruthers. He will remain in federal custody while his attorneys work on the terms of his release on bond.

Virginia’s only significant harvester of menhaden is agreeing to limit its catch of the foul-tasting fish that filters pollutants from Chesapeake Bay. The five-year limit on industrial fishing of menhaden is aimed at Houston-based Omega Protein. The company employs more than 250 workers in Reedville, Virginia and processes the small fish for animal feeds and industrial uses. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine proposed the 109,000 metric tons limit and says he expects the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to approve it. The limit will take effect immediately. The limit is the average annual harvest from 2001 through 2005. Omega Protein says it supports the limit because it gives the company the opportunity to still remain in business. Officials with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation praised it as a “wonderful balance between conservation and commerce.” But Greenpeace says that Kaine had devised a watered-down plan that pleases the industry but will do little to protect the ecosystem.

Xiang Jun Mei is a poor rice farmer’s daughter. Hope of joining China’s growing middle class drove her to hawk Mary Kay products door-to-door and to everyone she met. Wang Di started selling the American cosmetics to spice up her days of plodding, wifely chores and earn the respect of her executive husband. China is the company’s fastest growing and second-largest market and is expected to surpass the United States in sales in the next ten years. Growing ranks of Chinese women are donning the Mary Kay uniform of tailored suits. They’re reading Ash’s books translated into Mandarin, holding skin-care classes and professing her go-getter philosophy. About 30 top Chinese saleswomen flew to Dallas last week for the company’s annual convention, which ends tomorrow.

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