Tuesday AM August 21st, 2007

Allstate Texas Lloyd’s to raise homeowner insurance rates by 5.9 percent or more…Amstar Mortgage lays off corporate staff in Houston…Continental Airlines allows rescheduling for travelers affected by Hurricane Dean… Allstate Texas Lloyds plans to raise rates by 5.9 percent statewide for homeowners, according to the Houston Chronicle. Coastal residents will see an additional average two […]

Allstate Texas Lloyd’s to raise homeowner insurance rates by 5.9 percent or more…Amstar Mortgage lays off corporate staff in Houston…Continental Airlines allows rescheduling for travelers affected by Hurricane Dean…

Allstate Texas Lloyds plans to raise rates by 5.9 percent statewide for homeowners, according to the Houston Chronicle. Coastal residents will see an additional average two percent rate increase to cover reinsurance, or insurance the company buys for itself to help cover claims in a catastrophe. Rates will change on policies as they come up for renewal. About 700,000 of Allstate’s 917,000 Texas homeowners policyholders are insured by Allstate Texas Lloyd’s.

Amstar Mortgage has laid off most of its corporate staff in Houston, according to the Houston Business Journal, blaming poor market conditions. The company is trying to partner with another mortgage company to help keep its 116 branches afloat, saying many large lenders owe Amstar Mortgage “substantial money.” The mortgage company is a subsidiary of Houston-based Amstar Financial Holdings.

Houston-based Continental Airlines is providing ticketing flexibility for customers whose travel plans may be affected by Hurricane Dean. Customers with immediate travel plans to affected cities may reschedule or reroute travel once, without a penalty, by the end of today. There are 20 affected cities, including Aruba, Belize City, Cancun, Cozumel, San Juan, Antigua, Grand Cayman Island, Montego Bay, Port of Spain, Santo Domingo, St. Croix, St. Maarten, St. Thomas and seven others.

A federal appeals court in Washington stayed Whole Foods Markets’ acquisition of rival Wild Oats Markets. The ruling comes from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit. It says it wants a three-judge panel to hear more arguments on whether to block permanently Austin-based Whole Foods’ acquisition of Colorado-based Wild Oats. The Federal Trade Commission Friday asked the court to stay a decision Thursday by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman in Washington. The FTC wants to block the deal on antitrust grounds, but Friedman ruled that the transaction could proceed. Whole Foods will have until Wednesday afternoon to respond to the FTC’s request for a stay. The FTC, which declined comment, has until Thursday to counter the Whole Foods response. The accelerated schedule suggests the court plans to move quickly.

A just-released, forward-looking gauge of the economy is pointing higher. The Conference Board’s Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose 0.4 percent in July, as expected. That marks a rebound from a 0.3 decline in June. The index from the business research group is intended to forecast the economy over the next three to six months.

A federal appeals court ruled a lawsuit alleging that AT&T’s cell phone customers received inferior service after the company’s wireless division was sold to Cingular Wireless can proceed as a class action. At issue was a clause in old Cingular contracts that forced customers to litigate their grievances independently, instead of grouping together for a class action lawsuit. A three-judge panel in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the contract was a violation of California law. The ruling is further condemnation of so-called “class action waivers,” which other courts have ruled illegally shield companies engaged in potentially harmful conduct.

DXP Enterprises is acquiring Omaha-based Precision Industries in a $106 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. DXP Enterprises is a pumping solutions company, and Precision’s business model is similar.

London banking giant HSBC is talking with the Dallas buyout firm Lone Star Funds about buying control of the Korea Exchange Bank. HSBC says the deal, if successful, would depend on obtaining regulatory approvals in South Korea and elsewhere. HSBC’s the world’s second-largest bank. Lone Star has no comment. The private equity firm owns 51 percent of KEB, which is South Korea’s sixth-largest bank. Also declining to comment is South Korea’s financial regulatory agency. Pending legal cases surrounding Lone Star’s purchase of Korea Exchange Bank in 2003 have so far stood in the way of a KEB sale. A Seoul court is investigating allegations that Lone Star manipulated the stock price of KEB’s credit card unit in 2003 so that the bank could take over the unit at a lower price. The fund is also accused of a role in deliberately underestimating KEB’s financial strength to facilitate its purchase of the bank in 2003. Lone Star has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Lyondell Chemical will start offering anhydrous alcohol to the merchant market beginning in January, according to the Houston Business Journal. The product will be produced at the Houston-based company’s complex in Channelview. Isopropyl alcohol is used as a solvent for cleaners and coatings, in inks and paints, household cleaners, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and disinfectants.

Contract talks between American Airlines and its pilots are slowing to a crawl. The company is flinching at union pay demands that it says would drive already-high labor costs even higher. A company executive attacked the union’s bargaining moves in a letter sent directly to pilots. But the union protested that American was trying to improperly negotiate directly with its members. A union official called it an attempt to lower pilots’ expectations for “an industry-leading contract.” The two sides began talks in September–a year ahead of schedule–to craft a contract that would take effect in May 2008. American wants to rein in labor expenses that are higher than those at low-cost carriers. Pilots and other employees are eager for raises to make up for wage cuts in 2003.

Houston ranks as the most expensive commuting city, according to a Forbes report, with travel taking up to 20.9 percent of household costs. The magazine reports on a study by the non-profit Surface Transportation Policy Partnership based on 2003 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Supporters of a proposal to build a high temperature teaching and test reactor energy research facility in Andrews County say it would educate and train the next generation of scientists and engineers, providing them with state-of-the-art expertise in the latest nuclear materials and process technologies. The facility would perform basic and applied nuclear research. It would support the engineering, design, licensing, construction and operation of the Department of Energy’s next generation nuclear plant. The energy research facility would also optimize the economic high-temperature production of hydrogen, synthetic fuels and other materials, and develop and test new materials that can operate at temperatures at and above 950 degrees centigrade. It would increase the efficiency of electricity production in power plants.

Some 212 Houston-area Walgreen’s stores are getting Chase automatic teller machines, according to the Houston Business Journal. The addition of new ATMs in Houston gives the bank 423 more in-store ATMs in Texas, expanding its statewide ATM network to 1,263 machines. The new agreement increases Chase’s Walgreen’s locations to 476 stores across Texas.

Luby’s has signed a multi-year agreement to provide culinary services to Baylor College of Medicine’s Texas Medical Center campus, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston-based chain worked with Baylor to develop and design a new kitchen and dining facility that opened August 13th. Luby’s has also struck a deal with St. Joseph Medical Center to open a similar facility at the downtown hospital by the end of the year.

7-11 is making room on its roller grills for a new item to go with its hot dogs and taquitos. The Dallas-based convenience store chain says it’ll begin offering wienie-shaped breaded chicken to be served on a bun. Company officials say the chicken bite will help the chain benefit from Americans’ growing appetite for chicken as an alternative to hamburgers. The chicken tender-like concoction will sell for $1.69. It’s supplied by Home Market Foods of Boston, which also helped 7-11 develop hot dog-shaped cheeseburgers in 2005. Perishable foods account for about 10 percent of 7-11’s U.S. sales. Of those, it says nearly a third comes from sandwiches and about a fourth from hot dogs and taquitos. Hot dogs are the top-selling single item in the category.

Does the “zero grams trans fat” label on snack foods, cookies and crackers really mean there’s no artery-clogging fat inside? Maybe, maybe not. Federal regulations allow food labels to say there’s zero grams of trans fat as long as there’s less than half a gram per serving. And many packages contain more than what’s considered one serving. Often people eat a lot more than a serving and those small amounts of trans fat can add up. To find out if there might be some trans fat in the product, shoppers can check the list of ingredients to see if partially hydrogenated oil, the primary source of trans fat, is included. Some consumer advocates are urging the government to bar food producers from using any partially hydrogenated oils.

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