Friday AM February 9th, 2007

Class action suit filed against Cyberonics over depression treatment device…Gift card redemptions in January aid retailers…Willbros Group sells offshore Nigeria operations, ending 45 years of operations in that country… A class action suit against Cyberonics and some of its officers has been filed on behalf of purchasers of the Houston-based company’s publicly traded securities. The […]

Class action suit filed against Cyberonics over depression treatment device…Gift card redemptions in January aid retailers…Willbros Group sells offshore Nigeria operations, ending 45 years of operations in that country…

A class action suit against Cyberonics and some of its officers has been filed on behalf of purchasers of the Houston-based company’s publicly traded securities. The complaint alleges that defendants failed to disclose information regarding FDA review and approval of a new use for the company’s vagus nerve stimulation device to treat depression. The suit alleges that Cyberonics failed to disclose information about the marketability of the VNS device and material about coverage decisions by medical insurance payers.

Many of the nation’s retailers rebounded in January from a disappointing holiday season, as shoppers redeemed gift cards to buy winter and spring merchandise. The arrival of frigid temperatures in much of the country helped clear out what was left of cold weather items. Winners include Limited Brands, Nordstrom, and Federated department stores. The largest retailer, Wal-Mart, beat Wall Street estimates, though its monthly gain was modest. Gap, which has long struggled with disappointing sales, beat analysts’ expectations, though its sales languished at its namesake chain. Those with less-than-hoped-for results were Abercrombie and Fitch, Ann Taylor stores and Chico’s.

Steady as she goes for the job market. The Labor Department’s update on the number of new claims for unemployment benefits shows little change. The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless aid rose 3,000 last week to 311,000. The job market has been viewed as firm with a pickup in economic growth reported in recent months.

Freddie Mac says news of employment gains helped send long-term mortgage rates lower. The mortgage giant says the average for the 30-year fixed-rate loan dropped to 6.28 percent this week from 6.34 percent last week. The 30-year mortgage averaged 6.24 percent a year ago. The 15-year mortgage averaged 6.02–down four basis points from last week. Fifteen-year loans are popular in refinancing. Freddie Mac Vice President and Chief Economist Frank Nothaft says he expects rates on 30-year mortgages to average between 6.3 and 6.5 percent this year.

Fidelity Investments has been given an $8.5 million Texas Enterprise Fund grant to expand and construct a new building on its Westlake campus near Austin. Fidelity will invest more than $200 million in the project, creating 1,535 new jobs. Fidelity Investments is a provider of financial services, ranging from investment management, retirement planning, brokerage and human resources and benefits outsourcing services. The firm employs more than 3,400 Texans, with some 2,88 at its Westlake site. The state has allocated more than $332 million from the Texas Enterprise fund, bringing more than 45,000 new jobs and generating more than $15 billion in capital investments. Fidelity also maintains a presence in Houston.

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau will welcome 24 conventions, trade shows and other meetings to Houston during March. The group says more than 92,700 attendees will spend an estimated $90.3 million in the city during the month. The 2007 Society of Manufacturing Engineers will meet at the George r. Brown Convention Center March 5th through the 8th. The International Pump Users Symposium and Short Courses will be held March 2nd through the 9th at the Hilton Americas-Houston and the George R. Brown Convention Center. And clinical laboratory managers, professionals and industry partners will meet March 24th through the 27th at the Hilton Americas-Downtown for its ThinkLab Conference and Exhibition.

Houston-based energy contractor Willbros Group has sold its Ascot Offshore Nigeria operations in a $155.3 million deal, ending 45 years of operations in that country. Willbros has administrative offices in Houston and headquarters in Panama. The company announced plans last August to sell its operations in Nigeria and Venezuela to cut risks in those volatile regions.

Houston-based Mattress Firm is acquiring Las Vegas-based Bedtime Mattress, which owns 15 stores. That expands Mattress Firm’s store total to about 370 locations in 20 states.

Houston-based Marathon Oil has completed its second biodiesel storage and distribution project—its first one in Kentucky. That adds biodiesel blended fuel capability at its Kramer’s Lane Terminal in Louisville, with a fully automated in-line blending system. Marathon will market fuels that are two percent biodiesel and five percent biodiesel to distributors.

The Woodlands-based Excelerate Energy has received its Record of Decision from the U.S. Maritime Administration, approving the company’s Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port LNG facility in Massachusetts Bay. The approval keeps the project on target to begin natural gas deliveries to the New England market from the port beginning by December. Excelerate brought the Gulf Gateway Deepwater Port into service in the Gulf of Mexico in March 2005—the only offshore LNG-receiving facility in the world.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has awarded the state’s first land lease that can lead to the generation of renewable geothermal energy. Nevada-based Ormat Technologies was the high bidder on six tracts of coastal land in seven counties. Ormat will explore the land’s potential for producing geothermal power. The company will pay ten percent of any electricity produced from operations on the leased land to the Texas Permanent School Fund. Ormat paid $55,645 to lease the coastal land.

Waste Management said its fourth-quarter earnings fell 15 percent from a year ago. That’s when the Houston-based company had heavy business from hurricane cleanups. The nation’s largest garbage hauler reports its October-to-December profit fell to $246 million. Revenue in the most recent quarter fell 2.7 percent to $3.28 billion. Excluding special items, Waste Management said it would have earned $252 million. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial were looking for sales of $3.41 billion. Those estimates typically exclude one-time items.

Belo Corporation said fourth-quarter earnings jumped 29 percent on robust demand for political TV advertising during an election year. The Dallas-based media company says net income increased to $51.3 million. Quarterly revenue grew six percent to $436.6 million. Analysts questioned by Thomson Financial had projected sales of $434.5 million. By segment, Belo’s television division saw total revenue jump 17 percent in the fourth quarter. The newspaper group, however, posted a three percent decline in revenue on weaker demand for advertising. Traditional newspaper businesses have faced lagging sales amid growing competition from the Internet and new media. Belo owns the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers, as well as a string of television stations.

Snack and beverage maker Pepsico said its fourth-quarter profit climbed 61 percent. That was led by strong performances from its international and Frito-Lay divisions. Profit for the three months ended December 30th grew to $1.78 billion. Revenue edged up 2.8 percent to $10.38 billion. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial had forecast revenue of $10.38 billion. One analyst says the performance of Plano-based Frito-Lay North America picked up slack from Pepsico Beverages North America. Sales at Frito-Lay increased seven percent, led by sales of snacks such as Doritos, Sunchips, Tostitos, Lay’s and Cheetos. Operating profit was up eight percent on three percent volume growth.

Privately held Dutch chipmaker NXP Semiconductors said it’s agreed to buy the mobile phone equipment business of Austin-based Silicon Laboratories. Silicon Labs would get $285 million for the maker of chip systems that can receive and send data from cell phones. NXP may also pay another $65 million–depending on the acquired unit’s performance in the coming three years. NXP says it expects the deal to close before the end of this quarter, pending regulatory approval. It says the combination of the two companies’ technologies will make “a unique and powerful combination” for mobile phone makers needing cheap phone chips that work well. NXP is the former semiconductor division of Dutch technology giant Royal Philips Electronics. Philips sold an 80 percent stake in NXP last year for $8.18 billion to private equity investors led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. While Philips is no longer a player in the mobile telephone market, NXP is still a major supplier of chips and technology to handset makers.