Thursday AM September 28th, 2006

French ambassador visits Houston, noting large number of French businesses and subsidiaries…Sales of new single-family homes increased by 4.1 percent last month to seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than a million units…Falling gasoline prices help fuel mood improvement for consumers… The French ambassador to the United States addressed the French-American Chamber of Commerce at […]

French ambassador visits Houston, noting large number of French businesses and subsidiaries…Sales of new single-family homes increased by 4.1 percent last month to seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than a million units…Falling gasoline prices help fuel mood improvement for consumers…

The French ambassador to the United States addressed the French-American Chamber of Commerce at the Four Seasons Hotel Wednesday, noting the number of French firms doing business in Texas. Jean-David Levitte lauded the chamber for its promotion of the French and American local business community.

“We have in Texas now more than 300 subsidiaries of French companies, and if you look in terms of foreign-direct investments, as always, our British brothers are number one in America. But then, what do you see? You see France. You see France at the same level as Japan.”

The ambassador says employment figures in Texas are helped by the presence of French firms in the state.

“And if you look at the American employees of foreign companies, 12 persons of all of them are working for French companies. You have now 15,000 French citizens living in Texas—more than 6,000 living in Houston. Very active, very happy, very successful. So congratulations to all of you, and please continue!”

The Houston chapter of the French-American Chamber of Commerce is one of 19 in the United States, assisting area members in establishing small to medium-sized companies in Houston and overseas.

A rebound in new home sales is reported for August, but one of the industry’s leading analysts says the trend is still downward. The Commerce Department says sales of new single-family homes increased by 4.1 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than a million units. It is the biggest increase since an eight-percent gain in March. Chief economist Dave Seiders of the National Association of Home Builders notes that downward revisions were seen for July, June and May, bringing the second quarter total below previous levels. Seiders says he believes the housing market will continue to contract. The price of homes sold in August fell to $237,000. That is down 1.3 percent from August 2005. It marks the biggest year-over-year price decline in more than three years.

Falling gasoline prices have helped to fuel a mood improvement for consumers. The Conference Board’s Index of Consumer Confidence is put at 104.5. That’s up from a revised 100.2. The September index is stronger than expected. A spokeswoman says the change reflects a more favorable assessment of current conditions, coupled with a less pessimistic short-term outlook. Even so, the business research group’s Lynn Franco cautions ”there is little to suggest a significant change in economic activity” heading into the final months of the year.

Orders to U.S. factories for durable goods fell for a second straight month in August. With the .5 percent drop, it marks the first back-to-back declines reported by the Commerce Department in more than two years. The latest drop reflects weaker demand for computers and other electronic products. The August performance was worse than expected. Economists had been looking for an increase, but the durable goods report is often quite volatile. Durable goods are items expected to last at least three years. Demand for cars, airplanes and other transportation products was up 3.7 percent. Strength in autos offset further weakness in commercial aircraft.

People looking to pick up a little part-time work in the retail trades this holiday shopping season may be disappointed. The Challenger, Gray and Christmas holiday hiring forecast predicts seasonal hiring is likely to remain unchanged or come in below last year, when retailers added nearly 693,000 extra workers. The outplacement consultancy says that because retailers may be expecting smaller sales gains than a year ago, they’re likely to add the fewest number of extra workers possible without sacrificing customer service. CEO John Challenger says that while the decline in gas prices bodes well for retailers, the weakness in the housing market is worrisome. He notes that people are not pulling extra cash out of their homes through refinancing–cash that was often spent the nation’s in malls, home improvement stores and electronics retailers.

A new report shows a decline in the number of U.S. workers on foreign companies’ payrolls. The latest total, just over five million, represents a 9/6 percent decrease from 2000. That drop raises concerns that the U.S. could be losing its edge in the global competition to generate jobs. The report–from the Organization for International Investment–shows the number of workers employed by foreign companies dropped by 2.4 percent in 2004 to 5.12 million. According to the Washington-based lobby group, that marked the fourth consecutive annual decline. Among the states, California saw the largest drop, about 11,000 workers. The overall declines are blamed on an extended period of weak job growth following the 2001 recession and increased productivity in manufacturing, which means more output can be produced with fewer workers.

Premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance are up this year, but the rate of increase has slowed. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust finds premiums rose an average of 7.7 percent in 2006, compared with 9.2 percent last year and the recent peak of almost 14 percent in 2003. The 2006 rate of growth, while the slowest since 2000, was still more than double the 3.8 percent increase in workers’ wages and the overall inflation rate of 3.5 percent. The survey says premiums have increased 87 percent over the past six years, with family health coverage now averaging nearly $11,500 a year.

The Supreme Court will decide whether public employee unions must get special permission before spending some workers’ dues on political causes. The justices have accepted an appeal from the State of Washington. The case involves fees paid to the Washington Education Association by teachers who decline to join the union. Those workers still can be charged fees by the union to help pay for labor negotiations that affect them. But they can’t be forced to pay for the union’s political activism. The Washington Supreme Court overturned a 1992 law that required unions to get the consent of each worker and refund money to everyone who did not agree. The state court said forcing the union to seek permission from each worker violated the union’s free-speech rights.

President Bush says it’s about time Americans are able to log on and see in detail how their tax dollars are being spent. With those words, the president signed a bill that mandates creation of a massive online database of federal outlays. The database–a pet project of Internet bloggers–would list government grants and contracts, and show entities receiving federal funds. Bush says making that information available to citizens will enable them to demand lawmakers and the administration exercise more fiscal discipline. Plus he says it’s a weapon against pork-barrel projects–because they’ll no longer be buried deep in spending bills.

The government has announced more than $5.1 million in federal grants to buy land in Texas for endangered species habitat. The sites involve San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer region. San Antonio and the nature conservancy will get $3.5 million to help buy Comal County land to benefit the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler. The Interior Department also announced a $1 million grant to help San Marcos purchase 251 acres adjacent to San Marcos springs–for a nature park. Comal County received more than $612,000 to start planning a regional habitat conservation plan for the Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the endangered Black-Capped Vireo. The grants were among $67 million awarded for projects in 27 states.

Congress and the White House remain stalemated over billions of dollars in disaster relief for farmers. The disagreement centers on which ones really need help, with the Bush administration arguing that big chunks of money would go to farmers who don’t need it. Farm-state Democrats in the House are trying to force a vote. Farmers have sweltered through the hottest summer since the dust bowl of the 1930s, and drought persists from Montana and North Dakota south through Oklahoma and Texas. High energy prices have also taken a toll. But government forecasts say the nation’s biggest crops, corn and soybeans, are on track for the second-best harvest ever and prices are strong. Relief bills would provide as much as $6.5 billion, but no action is likely before Congress takes its election recess.

The Texas Lottery Commission reports nearly $3.8 billion in sales this fiscal year. It’s the highest total since the state instituted the lottery in 1992. For the third consecutive year, a contribution of just over $1 billion will go to the state’s Foundation School Fund, which is used for public education. Lottery executive director Anthony Sadberry credited teamwork between his staff and the retailers who sell tickets for the record-setting year. The previous sales record of $3.7 billion was set during fiscal 1997.

A lawyer says customers who sued “Dr. Phil” McGraw over his now-discontinued diet plan have agreed to a $10.5 million settlement. The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles claimed the TV psychologist defrauded fans with his year-long venture into the diet supplement business by making false statements about the pills. McGraw has denied the allegations and admitted no wrongdoing or misrepresentation. An attorney for the plaintiffs says thousands of eligible customers will be able to choose either replacement products or a small cash reward as part of the settlement. Irving-based CSA Nutraceuticals agreed to stop making “Shape Up!” diet pills and other supplements in 2004 as it faced a federal investigation into false-advertising concerns. McGraw’s lawyer, Gregory Phillips, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

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