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Wednesday AM April 18th, 2007

Houston home sales up or down, depending on how figures are viewed; nationally, housing starts post second straight monthly increase…Houston cited as number two city for migration…HCC breaks ground today for new facilities at Stafford and Missouri City campuses… Houston single-family home sales were down in March, according to the Houston Association of Realtors, compared […]

Houston home sales up or down, depending on how figures are viewed; nationally, housing starts post second straight monthly increase…Houston cited as number two city for migration…HCC breaks ground today for new facilities at Stafford and Missouri City campuses…

Houston single-family home sales were down in March, according to the Houston Association of Realtors, compared to the same month a year ago. But the number of March sales, in spite of the lower figures, was the second-highest ever recorded for March, and a 23.3 percent increase from February. Total property sales for the past month were 7,267—a 9.6 percent decrease over March 2006. There’s currently a 14.1 percent increase in the number of active listings, and the inventory of homes is at 5.5 months—the first year-over-year decline in more than two years.

Nationally, there’s news of a pickup in new home construction, raising the question of whether the troubled housing sector could be bottoming out. The Commerce Department says housing starts posted a second straight monthly increase, surging eight-tenths of one percent. Analysts had been looking for a decline. The gain puts housing starts at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of more than 1.5 million units. Applications for building permits also rose eight-tenths of one percent, the first increase in three months. Permits are seen as a gauge of future building activity.

A new report from the National Association of Home Builders says confidence among the trade continues to decline. NAHB Chief Economist Dave Seiders says while the group has been looking for an improving housing market later this year, he says ”the downside risks and uncertainty surrounding that forecast are considerable.” Seiders says tightening of lending standards arising from the subprime ”crisis” has shaken the confidence of both consumers and lenders alike.

Help may be on the way for borrowers with high-risk mortgages who are facing foreclosure. The heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac say they are developing new types of loans. Freddie Mac chairman and CEO Richard Syron says the new products will include 30-year and possibly 40-year fixed-rate mortgages as well as adjustable-rate mortgages with longer fixed-rate periods. A new Fannie Mae program called “Homestay” has new options that would let lenders help subprime borrowers refinance out of high-interest adjustable-rate mortgages or other difficult loans. Fannie Mae president and CEO Daniel Mudd says the company plans to stretch the term on subprime loans to 40 years from the current maximum 30 years–which will reduce monthly payments for borrowers by around five percent. The initiatives were disclosed in testimony prepared for a House hearing.

California-based Move, Incorporated, cites Houston as the number two city for migration, according to the Houston Business Journal. Consumers were polled on the top five cities most people are moving to, with Chicago ranking at the top of the list. Austin is third on the list.

Houston ranks fourth on Black Enterprise’s annual list of top cities for African-Americans, according to the Houston Business Journal. Washington, D.C. tops the list, followed by Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Dallas placed sixth on the list, chosen from more than 2,000 interactive surveys completed on the business publication’s Web site.

The Labor Department says the March Consumer Price Index rose six-tenths of one percent, as forecast. It is the biggest increase since April of last year. The culprit was energy costs, up 5.9 percent last month. Beyond energy, other areas saw prices moderate. Helping to calm some nerves over inflation, the core rate was up one-tenth, less than expected. The core excludes often volatile food and energy costs.

Industrial production fell last month as a drop in utilities output outweighed a gain in durable goods manufacturing. The Federal Reserve reports production dropped two-tenths percent following a revised February gain of eight-tenths percent. The initial report had put the previous month’s increase at one percent. Meanwhile, the nation’s factories, mines and utilities were running at 81.4 percent of capacity–down a couple of ticks from the month before.

Highly-skilled professionals are making more money, according to the Yoh Index of Technology Wages, a quarterly compensation index used by Fortune 500 companies to determine salary scales. The average hourly wage for high-impact technology workers is at $31.80—the highest pay figure documented by the index since it began in 2001. Some technical consultants command $83.72 per hour. A java developer averages $57.27 hourly.

Houston Community College is breaking ground today for new facilities at its Stafford and Missouri City campuses. A 10 a.m. groundbreaking is set for the Missouri City Academic Center at Sienna Parkway, and a 2 p.m. groundbreaking is set for the Learning Hub at the Stafford campus on Cash Road. Both facilities are to be completed by fall 2008.

The first shipments of chemical waste from the destruction of deadly VX nerve agent stored in Indiana arrived at a southeast Texas plant early Tuesday morning. The first batches of the waste will be incinerated at the Veolia Services plant in Port Arthur within a few days. The four tractor-trailers left western Indiana’s Newport Chemical Depot in a convoy before dawn Monday for the nearly 1,000-mile journey. Veolia has a $49 million contract to incinerate about two million gallons of the waste. The army contends the liquid waste is no more dangerous than other hazardous wastes shipped each day across the nation. But community activists in Indiana contend it contains tiny amounts of VX and toxic chemical compounds.

Houston-based EV Energy Partners is acquiring oil and natural gas properties in central and east Texas from Anadarko Petroleum in a $100 million deal. The Houston Business Journal says Anadarko sold those properties and a number of others in the Austin chalk for a total of $750 million.

Gulf Ethanol has moved from Broadfield Boulevard off I-10 in west Houston to larger facilities on Blalock, also off I-10 and inside Beltway 8. The Houston-based biofuels company says the move puts it in closer proximity to business associates.

Houston-based Gateway Energy has sold its Fort Cobb Fuel Authority subsidiary to Navitas Assets of Wyoming in a $2.6 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. Fort Cobb is a natural gas distributor serving Oklahoma customers.

Cameron International has a $127 million contract to supply subsea systems for Petrobras’ offshore gas production anticipation plan in Brazil, according to the Houston Business Journal. Cameron will provide 22 subsea control systems and related equipment beginning in 2008. Houston-based Cameron provides flow equipment products, systems and services to energy and process industry customers.

San Antonio-based AT&T plans to build a new call center in southern Indiana. It will create more than 500 new jobs for the area. The telecommunications company will invest more than $22 million and build a 75,000-square-foot building to provide support for business customers of the company’s wireless services. AT&T made the announcement at a press conference with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and other elected officials.

Whiteblox has signed a deal to be the exclusive online provider for the Asian Broadcast Network. That follow’s last week’s announcement that Whiteblox will distribute radio station streams and on-demand audio and video via the Internet in Mexico. The Asian Broadcast Network plans to debut a series of Internet television channels this year. Whiteblox is a company of The Woodlands-based Continental Vista Broadcasting Group.

Houston is one of six markets for a new out-of-home television viewing measurement service from The Nielsen Company and Media Measurement, according to the Houston Business Journal. The service monitors TV viewing in out-of-home locations such as offices, fitness clubs, hotels and bars. Other cities using the new service include New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Denver. Sample participants will be asked to carry mobile phones that include metering technology developed by California-based Integrated Media Measurement. The phones will collect passive digital signatures from telecasts that IMMI will match with audio signatures collected from actual telecasts.

Yahoo! is expanding its relationship with the newspaper industry. It has announced the addition of four new publishing companies to a consortium that works with the Internet company to sell advertising online. Yahoo! is also broadening the scope of the venture beyond its initial phase of selling help-wanted ads. It will now integrate Yahoo!’s search technology across the sites of the more than 264 newspapers now in the group, which covers 44 states. Yahoo! and the publishers also agreed to share local news stories from the newspapers across yahoo’s large news network and to sell local advertising online and to use Yahoo!’s graphical advertising technology on newspaper sites.

The Internet has given people around the world increased access to information. But that hasn’t hurt traffic at the nation’s public libraries. Quite the contrary; a new study finds the rise in Internet access has led to a solid increase in the number of library visitors. The president-elect of the American Library Association says the Internet has ”increased our hunger for knowledge and information”. The group says visits to libraries are up strongly and so is circulation of materials, including books, magazines, DVDs and CDs.

Entergy Corporation said it expects higher first-quarter earnings. But the Louisiana-based utility holding company says the profit will miss Wall Street forecasts. For the quarter earning March 31st, Entergy said it expects to report earnings of $1.01 per share. That’s up from 92 cents per share for the first quarter of 2006–a period in which the company was still recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial have forecast per-share earnings of $1.11 per share for the latest quarter. The company says the earnings jump will be due to better results at Entergy Unit, the company’s unit that owns and manages nuclear power plant. Those results will be partially offset by lower results from the company’s regulated power units in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and southeast Texas, and its parent and non-nuclear wholesale businesses. The company said it will report first-quarter results on April 26th.

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