Friday AM March 28th, 2008

Fewer sign up for unemployment benefits nationwide; Texas unemployment rate drops…Census Bureau says Houston is fourth-biggest population gainer…KPMG says weakened dollar puts U.S. ahead of Europe as cheaper place to do business…

The government says fewer people signed up for unemployment benefits last week, although that didn’t change the broader picture of a slower jobs market. The Labor Department says new applications filed for unemployment benefits last week fell by a seasonally adjusted 9,000 to 366,000. That level of 366,000 was better than the 371,000 that many economists were forecasting. Still, economists predict the nation’s labor market will slow and unemployment will rise this year, given the credit and financial crises.

The state’s unemployment rate dropped to 4.1 percent in February, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. That’s a 30-year low. The TWC says Texas added a total of 13,500 jobs statewide, with 235,000 added during 2007. The seasonally-adjusted 4.1 percent is below the national average of 4.8 percent.

A survey released by Houston staffing firm Murray Resources forecasts bigger paychecks for professional, engineering and accounting job seekers, according to the Houston Business Journal. The report says salaries are increasing on job postings at all levels, from switchboard receptionists and administrative and secretarial positions to human resource professionals, accounting and engineering staff. Downtown salaries are ten to 12 percent higher than those outside the Central Business District.

The economy nearly sputtered out in the final quarter of last year. It is probably faring even worse now as the housing, credit and financial crises take their toll on people and businesses alike. The Commerce Department, in a new report Thursday, says the economy grew at a feeble 0.6 percent annual rate in the October-to-December quarter. The reading–unchanged from a previous estimate a month ago–provided stark evidence of just how much the economy has weakened. In the prior quarter, the economy clocked in at a 4.9 percent growth rate.

The population continues to grow in Texas and across the south. Census Bureau estimates show that four Texas metropolitan areas are among the biggest population gainers as Americans continued their trend of moving to the sun belt in 2006 and 2007. Houston is fourth on the list. Skip Kasdorf with the Greater Houston Partnership says upstream energy has been strong, although slowing down to a six percent growth.

“That sector, which is the best-paid industry in Houston, has had consistently one of the fastest growth rates of Houston industries.”

The figures show that Dallas-Fort Worth added more than 162,000 residents between July 2006 and July 2007, more than any other metro area. Atlanta saw the second-largest population jump with just over 151,000 new residents. Phoenix was third with more than 132,000, and was followed by: Houston; Riverside, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Austin; Las Vegas; and San Antonio. Detroit lost more than three times as many people as any other metro area–its population declined more than 27,300. The Partnership’s Kasdorf says Houston’s job growth has been instrumental in attracting new residents.

“Houston overall had 3.4 percent job growth February to February, and the nation was 0.6. So we see a continuation of that strong economy in Houston that should continue to attract people here.”

Experts credit growth in the south to relatively strong local economies and housing prices among the most affordable in the country. Of the 50 fastest-growing metro areas, 27 were in the south and 20 were in the west. Two were in the midwest and none was in the northeast.

Thanks to the weakened dollar, the United States has leapfrogged France, Britain and other European countries as a cheaper place to do business. That’s according to a study released by the auditing and consulting firm KPMG. It shows that the United States moved up the list of places around the world that are the most cost-efficient. In 2006, the United States lagged behind four other G7 countries. This year, though, the United States surpassed Britain, The Netherlands, Italy and France. That leaves only Canada as being more cost-effective among the major industrial nations. Mexico, which is new to the study, was cheapest overall. Among the larger cities, the cheapest cities in which to operate were Puebla, Guadalajara and Monterrey, all in Mexico. In the United States, the cheapest places were Atlanta; Tampa, Florida; and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Comcast is in talks with file-sharing service BitTorrent to discuss ways to transport large files over the Internet. Comcast has acknowledged hampering file-sharing to manage network traffic. Comcast is the largest cable company and the second-largest Internet service provider. The company is being investigated by the FCC for secretly delaying some of the traffic between peer-to-peer computers sharing files. Comcast plans to more than double upstream capacity of its residential Internet service in several key markets by year’s end.

Topping-out ceremonies are planned this morning for the ten-story Collaborative Research Center at Rice University at Main and University. The CRC will facilitate joint research between Rice’s experts in biological sciences, engineering, computation and the physical and mathematical sciences and the Texas Medical Center physicians and scientists.

The daughter of Frommer’s Travel Guides founder Arthur Frommer is appearing at a book-signing at Brazos Bookstore this evening. Pauline Frommer is a guidebook author herself, and has released Insider Secrets to the World’s Most Popular Destinations, subtitled “Saving Money and Having a Ball in New York City, Las Vegas, Orlando, Paris, London, Alaska and Costa Rica”.

Houston-based Marathon Oil said that it expects its worldwide production of crude oil and natural gas to increase by at least eight percent in 2008. The oil producer and refiner also expects to average roughly seven percent growth over the next five years. It also says it expects its proved reserves–a key asset of oil companies—to increase by about 15 percent through 2012. Marathon President and CEO Clarence Cazalot touted the company’s record of growth at a meeting with Wall Street analysts in New York. He notes that Marathon had more than tripled to 6.6 billion barrels of oil equivalent since 2002. But he also discussed several of the obstacles facing large oil companies. He specifically cited the higher costs of producing and refining oil and the prospect of greater government involvement in the form of taxes and environmental regulations. Perhaps most importantly, he also noted the challenge of gaining access to new sources of hydrocarbons. National, state-run oil companies like those in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela control almost 90 percent of global oil reserves.

Archer Daniels Midland has sued five railroads–including BNSF Railway–accusing them of violating antitrust laws to fix their fuel surcharges. Fort Worth-based BNSF didn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit filed this week in federal court in Minneapolis. Illinois-based ADM says it’s paid more than $250 million in fuel surcharges since 2003. The lawsuit doesn’t say the surcharges are illegal, but accuses the railroads of illegally acting in concert to set them. ADM is one of the world’s largest agribusiness companies and a major rail customer. The lawsuit also names Union Pacific Railroad; CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway and Kansas City Southern Railway. CSX spokesman Garrick Francis says its fuel surcharge practices comply with all laws and regulations. A union pacific spokesman didn’t have any immediate comment.

While Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio say their merger will give consumers more control over the specific channels they buy, there is a catch: customers would need new radios at up to $200 a pop. The companies’ combined 17 million subscribers have radios that aren’t interoperable. Radios that can get signals from both companies probably won’t be available for at least a year after the merger. And it could be a year or two after that for customers who get satellite radios through new car purchases. The companies do note that “no existing radio will be made obsolete by the merger.” They say subscribers will be able to receive select programming from the provider they don’t currently subscribe to on existing radios. But, they haven’t specified whether popular programming, such as
Sirius’ Howard Stern or XM’s Major League Baseball, would be part of the “select programming” available.

The Food and Drug Administration says it’s investigating a possible link between the allergy drug Singulair and suicide. FDA said it is reviewing reports of mood changes, suicidal behavior and suicide in patients who have taken the drug. Singulair was drug maker Merck’s best-selling product last year. In the past year Merck has updated the drug’s labeling four times to include information on tremors, anxiousness, depression and suicidal behavior reported in some patients. Singulair had sales of more than $4 billion last year.

A regulatory filing shows Tenet Healthcare’s chief executive received $9.4 million in compensation for 2007. Trevor Fetter’s compensation came in a year in which the Dallas-based hospital operator sharply reduced its losses and showed signs of reversing a long decline in patient admissions. Fetter’s compensation represented a 3.9 percent cut from the year before. That decline, however, was much milder than that suffered by Tenet shareholders. The bulk of Fetter’s 2007 compensation came in stock and options awards, which the company valued at nearly $6.3 million when they were issued. Fetter was paid a salary of nearly $1.1 million, which was unchanged from the year before. He also got a performance-related incentive payment of nearly $1.9 million, nearly double the 2006 award. He also got $203,862 in other compensation, including $116,718 for personal use of company aircraft and a $24,200 auto allowance.

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