Wednesday AM August 22nd, 2007

Petroleum bids entered for western Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and natural gas tracts…Harris County Commissioners Court sets November bond election, seeking improvements at Port of Houston…UT Austin was named best college for career and job placement services… A federal agency says petroleum explorers put in 358 bids for 282 offshore oil and natural gas […]

Petroleum bids entered for western Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and natural gas tracts…Harris County Commissioners Court sets November bond election, seeking improvements at Port of Houston…UT Austin was named best college for career and job placement services…

A federal agency says petroleum explorers put in 358 bids for 282 offshore oil and natural gas tracts being offered in this year’s sale of federal leases in the western Gulf of Mexico. The Minerals Management Service says 40 companies made bids for the leases offshore of Texas, which will be opened today in New Orleans. MMS manages offshore leases in the Gulf. The sale offered 3,338 tracts consisting of about 18 million acres. Last year’s western Gulf sale resulted in $340.9 million in high bids for 381 tracts–the largest sale in that region in eight years. Recent sales have focused on “ultra-deepwater” sites of at least 800 meters in depth that require expensive long-term development and are not necessarily driven by current oil and gas prices. Another focus has been tracts of 200 meters or less, considered prime ground for the development of natural gas deposits deep in the earth. Easy-to-reach gas was produced years ago and the leases were largely abandoned before advances in technology and high gas prices lured exploration companies back.

The Harris County Commissioners Court has unanimously agreed to seek voter approval in November for a series of bond issues to improve county transportation, parks, infrastructure and Port of Houston facilities. The court approved placing six bond proposals worth $880 million on the November 6th ballot. The projects are designed to expand the county’s economy and enhance its livability and environment without spurring a tax increase. The Port of Houston proposal is a $250 million item.

Landry’s Restaurants has reached an agreement with creditors regarding repayment of $400 million in unsecured notes. The deal with its bondholders will allow the Houston-based company to reinstate the disputed ten-year, 7.5 percent senior notes, but with an increase to 9.5 percent. Bondholders had called in the bonds alleging Landry’s had violated its credit agreement by failing to file timely financial information.

A court ruling says competition from conventional supermarkets would prevent Whole Foods Market from significant price hikes if it buys Wild Oats Markets. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman released his reasons for refusing to block the transaction. The Federal Trade Commission on Friday appealed Friedman’s decision and asked for a stay that would delay the takeover. The appeals court has now asked the FTC, Austin-based Whole Foods and Colorado-based Wild Oats to provide additional information. Friedman’s 93-page opinion shows he rejected the FTC’s argument that Whole Foods and Wild Oats are close competitors that restrain each other’s pricing power. Instead, Friedman wrote that chains like Safeway and Kroger are selling more fresh and organic produce and redesigning many of their stores to compete with Whole Foods.

Boulder, Colorado, has a reputation as a liberal college town–much like Austin. It’s also home to the Wild Oats Marketplace natural foods chain. So Boulder’s also a proving ground for the fittest among organic retailers as Wild Oats prepares to be swallowed by Austin-based rival Whole Foods Markets. Whole Foods is trying to buy Wild Oats for $565 million in a deal that piqued national interest in the organic grocery industry. That’s because of opposition from federal regulators and the internal e-mails and online postings of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Wild Oats Markets started in Boulder in 1987 with the purchase of a single natural foods store. The concept grew into the nation’s second largest natural and organic foods supermarket chain, with more than 110 stores in 24 states and British Columbia. Annual sales exceed than $1 billion.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd says he has urged Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to use ”all the tools available” to keep the credit crisis from undermining the national economy. Dodd, a Democrat seeking his party’s presidential nomination, met with Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Dodd told reporters after the closed-door meeting that he did not specifically ask Bernanke to lower the key federal funds rate, which has stood at 5.25 percent for more than a year. Dodd says he welcomed the Fed’s steps so far to deal with the credit problems. The Fed last week sliced its discount rate to banks and has been pumping billions of dollars into the financial system. Dodd says he was impressed with these actions.

Central banks in Europe, Asia and the U.S. have injected more cash into the markets as commercial banks clamored for money. The European Central Bank placed more than $370 billion in its normal weekly refinancing as it furthered emergency moves taken over the last two weeks. That followed a decision by the Bank of Japan to lend another $7 billion. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve followed with another infusion of more than 3.7 billion, the latest in a series of cash transfusions that have topped more than $100 billion since last week. The Reserve Bank of Australia lent banks $3.6 billion as well. The Bank of England, meanwhile, lent $622 million directly to an institution–the first time it has made an emergency loan since the start of the sub-prime crisis and the resulting credit crunch.

Sungard Data Systems announced it’s completed acquisition of a Houston-based information and technical services company. The financial services and software company acquired Vericenter. Terms weren’t released. With the completed deal, Pennsylvania-based Sungard will add seven data centers across the United States. Sungard availability services will now serve more than 10,000 customers in North America and Europe.

Students at the University of Texas can party their way through undergrad and still be optimistic about getting a job after graduation. Details are in the annual Princeton Review survey. UT Austin was last year’s top party school. But this year UT was named best college for career and job placement services, based on a survey of 120,000 students at 366 colleges and universities around the country. UT dropped on the party list to third this year, based on a combination of survey questions on use of alcohol, drugs, hours of study and popularity of the Greek system. UT spokesman Don Hale called the party ranking “inane.” But hale says UT is first rate in career services and appreciates acknowledgment of that. The career placement category is new to the annual survey. Notre Dame came in second in job placement, followed by Penn State.

HSBC has tried three times to snap up South Korean banks as its financial industry emerges from a ten-year shakeout. Its fourth endeavor, announced this week, may be its best–and last–chance. London-based HSBC Holdings is Europe’s biggest bank. It announced that its Hong Kong-based subsidiary–Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation–hopes to buy control of Korean Exchange Bank from Dallas-based takeover firm Lone Star Funds. But analysts say its bid for KEB will be no easier than previous attempts. South Korean national sensitivity to foreign acquisitions runs high. HSBC has focused on emerging markets. And while acquiring KEB could be seen as part of that strategy, analysts say the bank’s long-term quest for a bigger presence in Asia’s fourth-largest economy is just as important. Simon Ho heads Asian Financial Research at Hong Kong’s ABN Amro Bank. He says KEB “would be one of the last, if not the last, sizable banking franchises up for sale” in Asia.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission resumed a hearing on a proposed coal-fired power plant near Texarkana. That’s despite a request from opponents that it halt further testimony. Attorney for hunters and landowners Charles Nestrud says Southwestern Energy Power Company hasn’t completed a study of the environmental effects of the project near Fulton, Arkansas. SWEPCO has 464,000 customers in Arkansas, Louisiana and northeast Texas. Nestrud says further air quality analysis is needed. SWEPCO attorney Kelly McQueen says the company is conducting further air-quality analysis to supplement its completed environmental impact statement and will revisit archaeological and cultural concerns as it proceeds with construction. A company permit request also is pending with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. McQueen says the permitting process takes years. The three-member PSC agreed to delay action on the opponents’ request and suggested Nestrud put his arguments in a formal written motion.

Highlights from an immigrant wage study of U.S. census data by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center: Foreign-born Latino workers made up 36 percent of the work force earning less than $8.50 an hour in 2005. That’s up from 42 percent in 1995. The portion of foreign-born Latinos earning between $8.50 an hour and $16.20 in 2005 grew by about 5 percentage points. In 2005 dollars, low-wage workers in 1995 earned less than $7.69 per hour, and middle wage workers earned up to $15.38 an hour in 1995 and $16.20 in 2005. The actual number of Latinos on the lowest end of the wage scale still grew by 1.2 million workers. That was still about 600,000 fewer than would be expected, based on the growth of the foreign-born Hispanic population. The report says half of newly arrived Latino immigrant workers were among the lowest wage earners in 2005, down from 64 percent in 1995. It also found that new arrivals were older, better educated and more likely to be employed in construction than agriculture. A third of foreign-born Asian workers were in the highest wage group, earning more than $24.03 an hour in 2005, up from a fourth. The share of Mexican-born workers in the lowest wage class fell from 48 percent in 1995 to 40 percent in 2005. There was no significant change for native-born African-Americans or native-born Hispanics, with half of each group in the lower and lower-middle wage groups in 2005 and 1995. Native born, non-Hispanic whites were more likely to be high wage earners. Twenty-three percent or 18.5 million were in the high-wage group in 2005, higher than expected considering the slower population increase among whites, smaller shares of whites in the work force and a smaller high-wage group.

Toys and other children’s products that are recalled still pose a threat, according to a new study. University of Dayton Professor Keri Brown Kirschman says the auction site eBay prohibits the sale of recalled products, but enforcement efforts don’t seem to be succeeding. Items are often resold online. Kirschman searched for 141 recalled items on eBay for 30 consecutive days and found them offered in at least 144 online auctions. The products included play yards, baby walkers, bassinets and safety devices. She says about 70 percent of recalled items tracked were sold. The study appearing in the journal Injury Prevention recommends that parents check government recall sites before purchasing items on auction Web sites.

The new $5 bill will be unveiled next month on the Internet. It’ll be shown to the world September 20th in a what’s being called a “Wi-5” event hosted on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s Web site. Design changes on the new $5 bill will be similar to other notes. These include pale colors in the background of the bills and other colors such as the blue American Eagle which is on the $20 and the red torch symbolizing the Statute of Liberty on the $10. Lincoln’s portrait will remain on the bill, as will the Lincoln Memorial on the other side. Both images are expected to be updated. The new currency won’t go into circulation until early next year. The redesign is an effort to thwart tech-savvy counterfeiters.