Thursday AM March 6th, 2008

Houston Technology Center stages two-day Energy Technology Venture Capital Conference…Supply managers not contraction for second straight month… Factories see demand for goods drop by largest amount in five months…

The Houston Technology Center is holdings its 4th annual Energy Technology Venture Capital Conference today and tomorrow. HTC’s Walter Ulrich says it brings together cutting edge energy technology startups and investors. This year, more attention is focused on alternate energy and clean fuels.

“The Houston Technology Center has five key focuses, but the biggest focus is in emerging and alternate energy technology. Also, bio-life science, which used to be different from energy, but now that we have biofuelsâ€â€and you’ll hear a little bit about that on Thursday and Fridayâ€â€the bio-life science side is interfacing also with energy. We do a lot in IT, and many of our emerging energy technology companies are able to model what they’re going to do and produce it because of IT. And finally, nanotechnologyâ€â€the impact of nanotechnology on energy is even going to be bigger than the impact of nanotechnology on bio-life sciences. This conference brings all of those technologies together.”

HTC is a non-profit incubator and accelerator supporting innovative technology companies, helping them get business plans to the point where they can seek funding for growth.

“Well, you know, there are so many rewards for me and for all of us at the HTC and for all our sponsors and volunteers. And watching entrepreneurs that would otherwise struggle, to watching new technologies that have some rough edges be honed off and then grow and be successful, to watch the jobs that are created in the community, it’s incredibly satisfying. The purpose of this conference is to make the introduction, to get the venture capitalists excited about what’s happening in emerging energy technology. Deals can happen relatively quickly, but these deals are more complicated than a handshake at a conference would allow to be finished.”

The two-day Energy Technology Venture Capital Conference is being held at the Marriott Houston Westchase.

The country’s service sector contracted in February for the second month in a row. A trade group of purchasing executives says its February service sector index registered at 49.3. That’s above January’s reading of 44.6, when the index surprised Wall Street by falling to its lowest level in more than six years. A reading below 50 indicates contraction. February’s figure from the Institute of Supply Management of Tempe, Arizona, is above economists’ expectations of 47.5.

U.S. factories saw demand for their goods drop in January by the largest amount in five months. The Commerce Department says new orders for manufactured goods fell 2.5 percent in January, compared to the previous month. That marked a deterioration from December’s two percent increase. Manufacturers are feeling the impact of an economic slowdown and surging prices for energy and other raw materials. Problems in the housing and credit markets are causing both consumers and businesses to be cautious in spending and investment. Weakness was concentrated in demand for “durable” goods, merchandise expected to last at least three years. These orders–including cars, airplanes, machinery and computers–dropped 5.1 percent in January, compared with a 4.4 percent increase in December.

The Labor Department says the productivity of U.S. workers slowed sharply in the final three months of last year as the national economy lost momentum. The government said that productivity–the amount an employee produces for every hour on the job–increased at an annual rate of just 1.9 percent in the October-to-December quarter. That was the slowest pace since the first quarter of last year. As productivity growth slowed, labor costs went up. They rose at a 2.6 percent clip in the fourth quarter, the fastest pace since the first quarter of last year.

ExxonMobil announced it expects to invest up to $30 billion on capital and exploration projects this year. That compares to about $21 billion in 2007. The Irving-based company says it expects to maintain the level of spending through at least 2012, as it tries to tap new reserves in all corners of the globe. The increase reflects the rising costs of finding new supplies of oil and natural gas. The company topped its own record for the biggest U.S. corporate profit in 2007. The investment forecasts came during a meeting with Wall Street analysts in New York.

New data show that federal job discrimination complaints filed by workers against private employers increased by nearly ten percent last year. It’s the biggest annual increase since the early 90s. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report says allegations of discrimination based on race, retaliation and sex were the most frequent. For the first time, retaliation was the second-most-frequent complaint, surpassing sex-based charges. Pregnancy discrimination increased by a record-high 14 percent. The commission’s chairwoman says the data should serve as a wake-up call to employers. Naomi Earp says “corporate America needs to do a better job of proactively preventing discrimination and addressing complaints.” The only major category to see a decrease was complaints involving equal pay.

A new international report warns that the world must act now to stop global warming or it will pay a much higher price later. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says in two decades, environmental damage could leave half the world’s population without adequate drinking water. It says if the world’s population continues to grow at the same rate, carbon dioxide emissions are likely to increase nearly 40 percent by 2050. The report urges the U.S. and developing countries with growing economies, like China and India, to accept a binding agreement that commits them to reducing global warming gases. It also says governments must create policies such as “green taxes” to encourage environmentally friendly technologies and practices.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says it will start deploying inspectors at U.S. ports to screen toys and other imports for potential safety hazards. The agency said its new import surveillance division will test selected products for unsafe levels of lead. It will check for loose parts that could pose a choking risk to children. It will also inspect for faulty wiring in electric components. The new unit will work with U.S. customs agents. Before the change, U.S. customs agents would conduct safety tests only at the request of the commission. The move follows the recall last fall of millions of toys–most from China–because of lead or other hazards.

The Motion Picture Association of America says moviegoers around the world pushed box office revenue to a record $26.7 billion last year. A report says box office revenue outside North America climbed 4.9 percent to $17.1 billion, representing nearly two-thirds of all ticket sales. Revenues in the United States and Canada increased 5.4 percent to a record $9.6 billion, with admissions unchanged at 1.4 billion tickets sold but prices five percent higher. Total global ticket sales reached $25.5 billion in 2006. The biggest blockbusters of 2007 in North America were Sony Pictures’ “Spider-man 3”; “Shrek the Third” and “Transformers,” both released by Paramount; and Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End.” All made more than $300 million.

The head of the Air Force says the European refueling tanker that won a $35 billion Pentagon contract last week is “clearly a better performer” than its U.S. rival. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told a Senate panel that the plane offered by European Aeronautic Defence and Space and its U.S. partner, Northrop Grumman, was determined to be less expensive and less risky than one offered by Boeing. Some lawmakers say they will want more information on how the contract was won after the companies are briefed Friday. The contract calls for the Air Force to buy 179 in-flight tanker aircraft over the next 15 years as it replaces its Boeing-built KC-135 tankers. Those are on average 47 years old. Boeing had been heavily favored to win the new contract.

A fiberglass plant in Wichita Falls that employs about 725 people and has operated for decadesâ€â€will close this year. Officials say the Saint-Gobain Vetrotex America plant will start phasing out operations in June with a planned closing for the third quarter. Saint-Gobain sold its reinforcement and composites businesses to Owens-Corning late last year, but the Wichita Falls plant was excluded for antitrust considerations. A company executive says it’s not economically feasible to keep the 787,000-square-foot plant running as a standalone operation. The workers will get a severance package. The Wichita Falls plant began production of fiberglass reinforcements in 1977.

The head of the EPA says he didn’t know there were behind-the-scenes efforts by agency officials to block states from trying to reduce mercury emissions at power plants. EPA administrator Stephen Johnson spoke in front of the Senate Appropriations Environment Subcommittee about the issue. Internal EPA documents obtained by an advocacy group show that there have been attempts over the past two years to keep states from making plants drastically cut mercury pollution. Many states didn’t want the plants to be able to buy their way out of having to reduce emissions. The efforts to block the states happened even as the Bush administration argued in court that states could set their own mercury emissions rules. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy warned Johnson that such pressure on states was inappropriate. And he said if it did occur, “then the EPA gave misleading information to the courts, which is an extremely serious matter.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples is barring certain Canadian cattle from crossing into Mexico through state facilities. Staples says the U.S. hasn’t approved allowing trade of some animals. Reports first indicated the U.S. signed off on an agreement between Canada and Mexico that permitted trading of specific dairy and beef cattle under 30 months old–including breeding stock. But Staples later learned U.S. Department of Agriculture officials had not approved the deal. Currently, Mexico only allows U.S. dairy heifers under the age of 24 months to be imported, despite in-depth international negotiations to broaden this to breeding stock. Staples says the trading agreement is not consistent with international standards set by the World Organisation of Animal Health. Texas livestock export sites are in Brownsville, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, El Paso and Laredo.

HSBC Holdings’ $6.3 billion bid for control of Korea Exchange Bank cleared a hurdle. That’s when South Korea’s corporate watchdog said the planned acquisition wouldn’t hurt market competition. But the finding by the Fair Trade Commission isn’t the last word from the South Korean government. The deal must still get final approval from the Financial Services Commission. The Fair Trade Commission says that’ll decide whether HSBC can proceed. In September, the Dallas-based private equity group Lone Star Funds signed a deal to sell its 51 percent stake in KEB to the British Bank Holding Company for more than $6.3 billion. Lone Star’s involvement with the South Korean bank increased local unease over the role of foreign investors in the South Korean economy. Last month, a court sentenced the head of Lone Star’s South Korean operations, Paul Yoo, to five years in prison for stock price manipulation. It also fined the fund and the bank $26 million dollars each. Appeals are pending.

The 49-year-old CEO of Kimberly-Clark last year received compensation that the company valued at $10.6 million. It’s a time when the Irving-based maker of Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissues raised profits 21 percent–despite higher costs for pulp and energy. The compensation for Thomas Falk was nearly 11 percent more than his 2006 package–largely due to a bigger bonus in 2007. A proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission says Falk earned a 2007 salary of $1.2 million. He received a performance-based bonus of $2.5 million. His other compensation included personal travel on corporate aircraft and security. The bulk of Falk’s compensation came from stock awards and options.

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