Friday AM January 11th, 2008

Former Enron broadband division finance chief seeks conviction overturn…Unemployment claims fall for second week, as holidays are factored…Demand for executive talent expected to increase, according to ExecuNet… The three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has been asked by former Enron broadband division finance chief Kevin Howard to free […]

Former Enron broadband division finance chief seeks conviction overturn…Unemployment claims fall for second week, as holidays are factored…Demand for executive talent expected to increase, according to ExecuNet…

The three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has been asked by former Enron broadband division finance chief Kevin Howard to free him of his conviction because the government won it through flawed means, according to the Houston Chronicle. The government is trying to maintain the only conviction won in the case involving five former broadband division executives. Howard was tried alongside four others in 2005 in a case that ended with a handful of acquittals and jurors deadlocked on dozens of other counts, including all against Howard. He was retried in May 2006 with former Enron accountant Michael Krautz. Krautz was acquitted, but Howard was convicted on several counts. But in August 2006, another three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit overturned most convictions of several former Merrill Lynch executives in a separate Enron case. The panel found flaws in a theory used by prosecutors used in that case and in Howard’s case, as well as that of former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling. Skilling is serving a 24-year sentence.

The General Accounting Office says the Coast Guard lacks the resources to meet its own security standards to protect against terrorism at American ports. The GAO says this is at a time when the nation is dramatically expanding imports of liquified natural gas. LNG currently accounts for about three percent of the national’s natural gas supply, mostly from Trinidad and Tobago. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell of Michigan says an attack on a tanker or terminal could have significant economic, environmental and public safety consequences, resulting in even higher gasoline and heating oil prices.

The number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, for the second week in a row. But the decline isn’t being viewed as evidence of an improving job market. Analysts say it has more to do with the difficulties in adjusting the numbers around the holidays when state claims offices are open fewer days. The Labor Department says jobless claims were down by 15,000 last week to 322,000. The week before they declined by 20,000. The four-week average for jobless claims dipped slightly to 341,000, the lowest in a month.

Most search firms expect demand for executive talent to increase in the first half of this year, according to ExecuNet’s Recruiter Confidence Index. The index is based on a monthly survey of executive recruiters conducted by ExecuNet. Some 59 percent of those polled say they’re very confident the executive employment market will improve during the next six months—unchanged from last month.

Countrywide Bank says its recent survey shows that 67 percent of Americans want to commit to save more in 2008, as a top New Year’s resolution. In Houston, some 74 percent said becoming more financially fit was a top priority. Only 58 percent locally said they believe financial fitness is more important than or important as physical fitness. Nationally, fewer women than men (37 percent versus 55 percent) believe they are financially fit.

Office space in the Houston area is expected to grow through 2011, according to Integra Realty Resources, as reported in the Houston Business Journal. Space in downtown Houston will grow by 14 percent, according to the New York real estate firm. That puts Houston fourth among U.S. cities for downtown construction over the next four years. New York tops the list. The report also shows that Houston’s downtown vacancy rate is currently at 12.8 percent, compared with a national average of 11.1 percent.

The chairman of Lone Star Funds is set to testify Friday in a high-profile South Korean trial involving the U.S. buyout group. John Grayken, the chairman of Dallas-based Lone Star, arrived in South Korea last night for the trial of the private equity group’s local chief for alleged stock price rigging. Grayken told reporters that he’s attending voluntarily at the request of lawyers defending Paul Yoo to testify on his behalf at the trial. Lone Star took over Korea Exchange Bank, South Korea’s sixth-largest lender in 2003. A Seoul court is investigating allegations that the fund manipulated the stock price of KEB’s credit card unit the same year. Yoo, Lone Star’s South Korea country head, was indicted last year in the case, along with Lone Star and others. Grayken has not been charged.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has fined a subsidiary of Houston-based Sanders Morris Harris Group $450,000 for failing to sufficiently monitor payments made to an outside hedge-fund manager, according to the Houston Chronicle. The fine against SMH Capital marks the first time the group previously known as National Association of Securities Dealers has fined a brokerage firm for such activities. The payments involve so-called “soft dollar” payments, which are for services such as research, made from commissions instead of as direct fees.

California-based Computer Sciences Corporation has been contracted to provide facility support services at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. The deal could be worth up to $544 million if all options are exercised. And Houston-based space operations company United Space Alliance has joined with Lockheed Martin to pursue the facilities development and operations contract at the center.

Houston Fuel Oil Terminal has acquired the Dow Chemical Haltermann Products facility at Sheldon Road and Jacintoport Boulevard, according to the Houston Business Journal. The property includes storage tanks, a barge dock, rail spurs, truck racks and land for expansion. Houston Fuel Oil Terminal is owned by Motiva Enterprises and ArcLight Capital Partners. Meanwhile, Dow Chemical plans to relocate the Houston Dow Center from a 29-year-old facility in west Houston to an office building in the Plaza at Enclave on Enclave Parkway, under construction in the Energy Corridor.

Any confusion as to whether the Federal Reserve plans to cut rates further to help a struggling economy may have been cleared up. In prepared remarks, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke says the central bank is ready to act aggressively in the face of housing and credit problems. In Bernanke’s words, “we stand ready to take substantive additional action as needed to support growth and to provide adequate insurance against downside risks.” The stock market rallied upon news of the remarks. There has been some question whether the Fed will cut by a-half point or a-quarter when it meets on January 29th and 30th. Worries about the country’s economic health have emerged as a key election-year issue, spurring the White House and Congress to explore ways to stimulate the economy. In a report Friday that rattled Wall Street and Main Street, the government said hiring practically ground to a halt in December, pushing the unemployment rate up to five percent, a two-year high.

Both the European Central Bank and the Bank of England kept their benchmark interest rates on hold. They are juggling the opposing challenges of higher inflation and worries about economic growth. ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet said the bank “remains prepared to act pre-emptively” to keep inflation in check. Economists think that means the bank wants to retain its holding stance while leaving the door open for a potential interest rate rise later this year. The ECB is concerned that sharp rises in food and energy prices will turn into broader and more persistent inflation.

The State Department says it’ll start accepting applications February 1st for passport cards as alternatives to passports for Americans traveling to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The wallet-sized cards will be available to U.S. citizens by this spring. They’ll cost $45 for adults and $35 for children. That’s cheaper than a regular passport. Adults who have passports will have to pay only $20. The cards will be accepted for land and sea crossings between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, but not for flights. The new passport cards are being offered as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, or WHTI. The first phase of that took effect last year, requiring U.S. travelers returning by plane from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean to carry a passport. That led to a temporary surge in demand for passports, with wait times for passports increasing from four to six weeks to 12 weeks. Those waits have since returned to normal.

The new chief executive of Texas’ largest power generating company will make a $1 million salary and could get annual bonuses up to $2 million. John F. Young heads Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings Corporation, which was formerly TXU Corporation. The company disclosed Young’s compensation in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The newly hired 51-year-old CEO and president is expected to start his duties January 29th, and will also be a director. He’s a former executive at Chicago-based electric utility Exelon Corporation. Under a five-year contract, Young can earn cash bonuses up to twice his salary for hitting performance goals set by the board of directors. Energy Future Holdings says Young agreed to buy at least $3 million worth of common stock in the privately held company, and he’ll get options to acquire additional shares. If young is fired without cause or resigns “for good reason” in the next two years, he’d get 2.5 times his annual salary and bonus target.

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