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Friday PM April 18th, 2008

Texas unemployment rate rises to 4.3 percent; Houston adds more than 80,000 jobs in past 12 months…AT&T plans to cut about 4,600 jobs, or 1.5 percent of work force…Houston gas price averages about a nickel higher than last week…

The unemployment rate in Texas rose to 4.3 percent in March. State officials say employers added 13,500 jobs, but more people are out of work too. Unemployment was 4.1 percent in February, which was a record low since statistics have been kept. Midland has the lowest unemployment in the state at 2.6 percent, followed by Odessa and Amarillo. The highest jobless rate in the state: the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area, at 6.4 percent. Houston added 80,100 jobs in the past 12 months—a 3.2 percent gain—according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The Labor Department says the number of workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose by 17,000 last week. That’s a bigger-than-expected increase. That puts the total number of new claims at 372,000. The four-week moving average, less volatile than the weekly number, fell slightly to 376,000.

AT&T says it plans to cut about 4,600 jobs, or 1.5 percent of its work force. The San Antonio-based phone company formed when AT&T and SBC combined says it will cut 1.5 percent of its total staff as it integrates several businesses and streamlines operations. The nation’s largest telecommunications provider said in a regulatory filing it plans to take a $374 million first-quarter pretax charge against earnings related to the jobs cuts. AT&T says most of the jobs being cut are at the management level, and that overall employment will remain steady in 2008 as it invests in “growth areas.” The company had about 309,000 employees at the end of 2007.

Some 6,000 teens planning to work this summer can receive advice at the fifth annual Youth Rules! Rally, Job and Career Fair being held at the George R. Brown convention Center tomorrow. The free event is to educate workers ages 16-21 about employment age requirements, jobs teens are prohibited from taking, hours they can work and staying safe on the job. Federal, state and local experts will distribute information, lead presentations on workplace safety and answer questions.

There’s no end in sight to the spike in Texas retail gasoline prices as the prices at the pump climb deeper into record territory. The weekly AAA Texas Gas Price Survey shows regular self-serve is averaging $3.33 per gallon across the state. That’s a nickel higher than last week and 55 cents per gallon higher than a year ago. Even so, auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says Texas has one of the lowest average retail prices for gasoline in the nation. Nationally, the price is averaging $3.418, up six cents from last week. Houston’s average is up 4.6 cents to $3.33 per gallon. California has the highest statewide average of $3.82 per gallon. San Antonio has the lowest average price for regular self-serve at $3.27. That’s a local record-high a nickel higher than last week. The state’s costliest gas is in Dallas, where the average is $3.35 per gallon. That’s also a nickel higher than last week.

A forward-looking gauge of economic activity has risen slightly, after five months of declines. The Conference Board’s Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose one-tenth of a percent in March. The index is designed to forecast economic activity in the next three to six months based on ten economic components, including stock prices, building permits and initial claims for unemployment benefits. Despite the uptick, Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein says there’s little sign that the economy will gain momentum in the near-term.

Freddie Mac says the average for 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages is unchanged at 5.88 percent, compared to last week. For 15-year fixed rate mortgages, the average is put at 5.40 percent, down from 5.42 percent last week. The average for one-year Treasury-index adjustable rate mortgages was 5.10 percent this week. That’s down from last week’s average of 5.18 percent.

US Airways will begin charging passengers extra for an aisle or window seat on some of its planes. President Scott Kirby told employees in a letter that the carrier needs to find ways to offset high fuel costs that are plaguing the industry. The new Choice Seats program, which begins May 7th, will charge passengers $5 per flight for an aisle or window seat in the first several rows in coach. Passengers will be able to buy the seats on the Web for all US Airways-operated flights except the US Airways shuttle and Colgan-operated Saab 340 aircraft. Dividend miles preferred members will be offered the Choice Seats program for free.

Schlumberger says its first-quarter net income rose nearly 14 percent from a year ago, but the oilfield services provider missed the Wall Street forecast. The Houston-based company, which kicked off earnings season for the oil sector, said Friday income in the January-March period was $1.34 billion, versus $1.18 billion in the year-ago period. Revenue rose to $6.29 billion from $5.46 billion. On average, analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial were looking for sales of $6.32 billion. In a statement, Schlumberger Chairman and Chief Executive Andrew Gould said seasonal factors and weather-related events hurt the most-recent results, but he said long-term prospects are positive.

Baker Hughes in Houston says the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. rose by 12 this week–to reach 1,827. One year ago the rig count stood at 1,769. Texas rose by four. Baker Hughes has tracked rig counts since 1944. The tally peaked at 4,530 in 1981, during the height of the oil boom.

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