Tuesday AM October 23rd, 2007

Economists predicting slower growth this half…British newspaper says NatWest Three are discussing possible plea bargain in Enron fraud case…Dell expands retail availabilities… A survey of some of the nation’s top economists finds business conditions worsening, producing a diminished outlook. The National Association for Business Economics says more than half of its 113 members surveyed look […]

Economists predicting slower growth this half…British newspaper says NatWest Three are discussing possible plea bargain in Enron fraud case…Dell expands retail availabilities…

A survey of some of the nation’s top economists finds business conditions worsening, producing a diminished outlook. The National Association for Business Economics says more than half of its 113 members surveyed look for slowing growth here in the second half of the year. Some 98 percent look for a further slowdown in housing. More than half say the remaining slowdown will be substantial. Most of those responding say the credit crunch has affected their business. About a third say that employment at their firms would rise, and 53 percent see no change in employment over the next six months. A small number see reductions from attrition or layoffs.

A Fed official says the nation’s central bank will do whatever is necessary to prevent damage to the economy from the credit crunch that has worried Wall Street and Main Street alike. At the same time, he warns it will take time for financial markets to fully recover from the strains. Fed Governor Randall Kroszner’s remarks come as fears about the credit crunch and a painful housing slump have gripped investors in recent months. It is the same pledge that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and other central bankers have been making in the past months. That is, to keep the economy growing and inflation under control. Some economists believe the Fed will lower an important interest rate at the end of a policy setting meeting later this month, to help bolster economic activity. Others, citing the economy’s resiliency and worries about an inflation flareup, think the Fed will leave rates alone.

The NatWest Three, the British bankers accused of Enron-related fraud, have started negotiations over a possible plea bargain, according to the Times of London. They would admit some charges in return for others being dropped, according to legal sources. Giles Darby, David Bermingham and Gary Mulgrew are thought to be close to conceding that if they try to fight their case, they are unlikely to win, according to the British newspaper. Their trial is set for January. They have been unable to persuade ex-colleagues to travel to Houston in their defense.

Prosperity Bancshares is buying all of Popular’s Houston retail bank branches of Banco Popular North America, according to the Houston Business Journal. Popular has six branches in Houston and more than 140 in Texas and five other states. Prosperity says it will have 46 banking centers in the Houston area.

Comcast is adding seven new HD networks to its HD channel line-up starting Tuesday. Digital customers with an HD-capable set-top box will receive an enhanced viewing experience. The seven new channels include National Geographic HD, USA HD, A&E HD, History Channel HD, HGTV HD, Food Network HD and CNN HD. Comcast earlier this month launched TBS HD and NFL Network HD, plus five other HD networks in June. That brings the number of HD channel on Comcast to 30.

Microsoft has yielded to European Union regulators, agreeing to obey key parts of a 2004 antitrust ruling upheld by an appeals court last month. It is halting a legal battle that has lasted years and cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. The world’s largest software company will slash the royalty fees it wanted to charge server software rivals for critical interoperability information needed to help them make programs that worked smoothly with Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows. It will make access to the data easier for open source developers that the EU said are now “virtually the only alternative for users.” The European Commission order three years ago found it guilty of monopoly abuse.

The computer maker Dell says it plans to sell computers and other electronic gear at 1,400 Staples office supply stores. That’s the latest departure from the Round Rock-based personal computer maker’s direct-to-customer business model. The number two computer maker pioneered that approach. But now, Dell and the world’s biggest office products supplier say Staples would offer Dell desktop and notebook computers, monitors, printers, ink and toner, starting November 11th. Dell products also will be available through Staples’ Web site. Initial Dell computer models to be sold at staples include Inspiron 1721 and 1521 notebooks, and Inspiron 530 desktops. In May, Dell struck a deal with Wal-Mart to sell PCs in about 3,000 stores. Dell also has struck partnerships recently with Bic Camera in Japan, Carphone Warehouse in Britain, and Gome Stores in China. With the Staples deal, Dell says its products will be available in more than 10,000 stores.

AT&T wireless customers will soon have a lot more music at their fingertips. The company is making the entire Napster music catalog available for wireless download. That’s more than five million songs. Tracks will cost $1.99 each, or $7.49 for five songs a month. Customers will also be able to transfer downloaded songs to their computers. And they’ll be able to upload any songs they already have from Napster onto their phones. As for which phones will support the service–AT&T hasn’t announced that yet. One thing is for certain: it won’t be available on the iPhone. That device is already hooked up to Apple’s iTunes. San Antonio-based AT&T will start the program early next month. The launch will include an offer of new music from the band Matchbox Twenty.

Nationwide customers of AT&T’s premium television service–U-verse–were hit with weekend outages. A spokesman says the company was able to restore some local channels and popular cable news and sports networks within hours. The outages began earlier Sunday. But Michael Coe said full service wasn’t restored until Sunday night. Some customers had to reboot their cable box to get service restored. Coe says the cause of the disruption is under investigation. AT&T also is reviewing its policies after some complained they were unable to get customer service help when they needed it. Since earlier this year, however, AT&T had been ramping up rollout and installations, with 100,000 customers signed up by September. It’s now available in 33 markets.

Flash memory maker Sandisk will debut an online video service and a USB flash drive. It can carry television programs and videos from a computer for playback on TVs. The Sansa TakeTV video player–an ensemble of an oversized USB drive, remote control and a small dock that connects to a TV—and its accompanying video service, fanfare, marks the latest attempt by a company looking to bridge content between the pc and the television. The TakeTV player is $99.99 for a four gigabyte model and $149.99 for an eight GB one that can hold up to ten hours of video. Fanfare, in a test stage, offers premium TV shows for $1.99 per download. That’s roughly the same price as rival services. However, Sandisk says it hopes to ultimately provide a broad mixture of free and ad-supported content as well as pay-per-download videos.

Chrysler workers are sending their union a ”message of considerable unrest,” as one labor expert describes it. Large numbers of UAW members are making it clear they don’t like the tentative contract agreement between the union and Chrysler. On Friday and Saturday, members at locals in Missouri, Ohio and Delaware voted against the deal. And the latest votes raise doubts about whether the deal can be ratified. Union leaders from Detroit had spent part of the week lobbying for yes votes. Among the plants where workers have voted against the deal is one in Fenton, Missouri that’s one of Chrysler’s largest. The plant makes Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Caravan minivans, which are brand new for 2008 and are expected to be top sellers–meaning job security for several years. Dissident union members have been using the Internet to voice opposition to the pact.

Diamonds really haven’t been Zale’s best friend. The Irving-based jeweler, which operates 2,300 jewelry stores in malls and outlets in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, is trying to get back to its roots. It’s about selling affordable jewelry to the average American mall shopper. The company tried going upmarket a couple of years ago—but failed. Recently, three hedge funds–Citadel Investment Group, SAC Capital Advisors and Breeden Partners–bought more than 18 percent of Zale’s stock. The funds think the stock is undervalued and the company’s capable of generating good cash flow, though much depends on Zale’s success in the upcoming holiday season. Zale’s vice president and treasurer, David Sternblitz, says the company aims to keep only brands that meet or exceed corporate average returns. He declined to discuss any potential asset sales.

Visitors to the State Fair of Texas spent a record-setting $29 million on coupons. Fair officials say most used the coupons to purchase fried fare and other foods, including Texas fried cookie dough and deep fried latte. The previous record was $26.5 million spent last year. Nearly a quarter million fairgoers rode the new Texas Skyway by Sunday–the last day of the fair. Bryan Berg broke his previous Guinness world record for the tallest freestanding house of cards. He built a structure more than 25 feet tall. Workers had to remove tiles from the ceiling of the African American Museum to make room for the tower of cards. During the Youth Livestock Auction of Champions, Texas youngsters earned an all-time high of more than $1 million with the sale of animals they raised. Next year, the State Fair of Texas is set to open September 26th.

Texas Instruments reports third-quarter earnings rose 11 percent. Dallas-based TI says demand for analog chips and lower manufacturing costs overcame a drop in revenue. Texas Instruments is the largest maker of chips used in wireless phones. In the third quarter, net income rose to $776 million. That compares to earnings of $702 million in the year-earlier period.

Kimberly-Clark posted third-quarter earnings 24 percent higher than last year’s quarter. The Irving-based consumer paper products maker credits higher sales of its Huggies baby wipes and diapers and its Kleenex tissue. Quarterly earnings rose to $453.1 million. Revenue rose ten percent to $4.62 billion.

Kimberly-Clark plans to use methane gas from a South Carolina landfill to generate steam by waste decomposition at the Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority landfill in Aiken County, South Carolina. Illinois-based Siemens Building Technologies, the U.S. affiliate of Siemens Building Technologies of Zurich, is designing and building the gas collection facility and 15-mile pipeline from the landfill to the manufacturing facility. Construction has started. The project is scheduled to be operational in April.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required