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Tuesday PM February 19th, 2008

Houston property sales continue slowdown…Venezuela values Exxon assets at less than $1 billion…Crude oil futures prices end at new record, closing at $100.01 a barrel…

Property sales in the Houston area slowed during the first month of 2008, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. January sales of single-family homes dipped to the lowest level since January 2006, following one of the best years on record. Total property sales for the month registered 4,353—a 17.2 percent drop compared to January 2007, and the fifth straight monthly decline. But it’s an improvement over the previous month’s 23.5 percent fall. Property sales totaled more than $811 million compared to nearly $1.3 billion in sales one year earlier—a 37.5 percent decline. The average price of a home rose to $190,233, and the median price dipped to $139,000.

ExxonMobil’s nationalized investments in Venezuela are worth less than $1 billion, according to that country’s oil minister. Courts in the United States and Great Britain are locked in a legal battle over compensation after Venezuela nationalized ExxonMobil’s Orinoco River basin project. The courts have temporarily frozen about $12 billion in Venezuelan assets while the company awaits a decision by an international arbitration panel. ExxonMobil walked away from the Orinoco basin after the Venezuelan government changed the terms of the contract.

Crude oil futures prices ended higher and at a new record on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The near-month contract for the benchmark grade closed at $100.01 a barrel. Oil, heating oil and gasoline prices spiked as investors eyed the possibility that OPEC may cut production just ahead of the second quarter. That’s when gasoline demand in the Northern Hemisphere usually becomes the central focus of the market. An explosion at the 70,000-barrel-a-day Alon USA refinery in Big Spring also may have boosted prices. But one analyst says the primary worry is that OPEC may reduce output next month to support prices within a range of $85 to $100 a barrel range. The explosion Monday at the Alon USA refinery injured four workers, with one employee hospitalized for burns. David Foster, who’s vice president of the Dallas-based refiner, says he expects the refinery to be off-line for weeks.

Alon USA Energy says its west Texas refinery that exploded could be out of commission for two months. President and CEO Jeff Morris says the refiner should have contingency supply plans in the coming days for the Big Spring unit. Five people were hurt in an oil refinery explosion in Big Spring. No word yet on what sparked Monday’s explosion. A company spokesman says the fire was extinguished Monday afternoon. One company worker suffered burns and has been transported to a hospital in Lubbock. He is in satisfactory condition. Spokesman Blake Lewis says three injured contractors were treated at the scene–one for a concussion, and two for possible hearing problems. A fifth person was injured when her car was struck by debris. She was treated and released from a hospital. The blast sent smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the area, forced the closure of schools and shut down nearby interstate 20. Officials say things could have been much worse. A skeleton crew of just 40 people were working at the 78-year-old refinery because of the Presidents Day holiday. There are typically about four times as many people on duty at the time of the explosion. Big Spring is about midway between Dallas and El Paso.

The Supreme Court has refused to offer help to Hurricane Katrina victims who want their insurance companies to pay for flood damage to their homes and businesses. The justices on Tuesday rejected appeals from Xavier University and 68 other individuals and businesses seeking to allow their lawsuits against the insurers to go forward. Xavier asked the court to step in after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the policies did not cover damage from floods, even those that resulted from man-made failures such as the collapsed levees in New Orleans.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, Litton Loan Servicing and industry experts are hosting a foreclosure prevention meeting this evening at the Second Baptist Church north campus on Highway 59 North in Kingwood. HUD planned the meeting in response to the growing number of foreclosures. The event is targeted to consumers who are behind on their mortgage payments, have an adjustable rate mortgage loan that may be resetting to a higher interest rate or are facing foreclosure. According to RealtyTrac, Houston-area foreclosures exceeded 11,000 filings for the second half of 2007, ranking 36th among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan cities.

As economic reports gear up in this holiday-shortened week, readings are due on housing, inflation and the economic outlook. Beginning Wednesday, the Labor Department releases the Consumer Price Index for January. Analysts are looking for a rise of 0.3 percent. Also Wednesday, the government reports on January housing starts. The expectation there is for a slight decline. On Thursday, the Labor Department releases the weekly jobless claims. Also, the Conference Board’s Index of Leading Indicators is scheduled, with economists looking for a drop in the forward-looking gauge of economic activity.

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