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Tuesday AM April 22nd, 2008

Grey Wolf merging with Basic Energy Services to create $2.9 billion company…Venezuela plans to challenge ExxonMobil's asset freeze in Netherlands court…Rice University and Lockheed Martin partner to develop new technologies in electronics, energy and security…

Grey Wolf and Midland-based Basic Energy Services are merging into a new Houston-based oilfield services company. It’s a cash-and-stock acquisition by Grey Wolf, whose name will be retained. The new $2.9 billion company will have about 7,500 employees, with some 395 well-servicing and 130 drilling rigs.

Venezuela plans to appear in a Netherlands court by the end of the month to end ExxonMobil’s asset freeze. A joint venture between ExxonMobil and Petroleos de Venezuela to pump heavy crude and refine it into lighter oil was abandoned after contract changes by the government of President Hugo Chavez. Exxon filed for arbitration. That unit of Exxon is registered in The Netherlands, which Venezuela’s oil minister says is an abuse of a bilateral investment protection treaty.

Rice University and Lockheed Martin have signed a partnership to develop new technologies in electronics, energy and security. The Lockheed Martin Advanced Nanotechnology Center of Excellence at Rice University’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science will pair researchers from Lockheed Martin with Rice researchers. Specific proposals will be evaluated, such as nanomaterials that could double the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries and solar energy collectors that are twice as efficient as today’s best.P>

Optimism among small business owners is at the lowest point of the six-year history of the American Express Small Business Monitor. Retailers have the most negative outlook. The economy is cited by four in ten small business owners as the issue that will most sway their decision on the next U.S. president. The semi-annual survey of entrepreneurs reveals that homeland security is cited by just 16 percent. Growth is still a priority, with seven in ten business owners planning to grow their business over the next six months and 31 percent planning to hire—up seven percent from last fall. The most optimistic are those over sixty years old, who have experienced previous downturns.

The Bank of England is taking new steps in reaction to the damaging impact of the subprime mortgage crisis. It has announced a $100 billion plan to allow banks to swap mortgage-backed securities for British treasury bills. The central bank’s aim is to unblock the interbank lending market and restore normal lending practices to banks and home buyers hampered by the subprime credit crisis. The asset swaps are for one year, but renewable for up to three years, only for assets which existed at the end of last year. It says the risk of losses on the swapped assets remains with the commercial banks, not the taxpayers. The swap gives the banks assets they can use to operate, in hopes they will then resume lending more–and support the housing market and the overall British economy.

U.S. registrations of new hybrid vehicles rose 38 percent in 2007 to a record 350,289, according to data released by R.L. Polk & Company, a Southfield, Michigan-based automotive marketing and research company. Hybrids made up just 2.2 percent of the U.S. market share for the year, but they were growing steadily even as overall sales declined three percent. Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis at Polk, says rising gas prices may affect some buyers, but they’re not the main driver of hybrid sales. Instead, he thinks sales jumped in 2007 because buyers had more options. He says another important factor is that hybrids have been on the market long enough for consumers to trust the technology. The Prius, the second mass-market hybrid after the Honda Insight, went on sale in the U.S. in 2000. The Prius remained the best-selling hybrid in 2007, commanding 51 percent of the hybrid market, up from 43 percent in 2006 despite the influx of new hybrids. California remained the top state for hybrid sales in 2007. Twenty-six percent of all hybrid registrations were in California. Florida, New York, Texas and Washington followed.

Skype, the Internet calling subsidiary of eBay, is introducing its first plan for unlimited calls to overseas phones. The company says the plan will allow unlimited calls to land-line phones in 34 countries for $9.95 per month. The countries encompassed include most of Europe, plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. Calls to domestic land lines and cell phones are included as well, as are calls to cell phones in Canada, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, but not cell phones in other countries. Skype has already been selling unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada for $3 a month. It is expanding that offering with another plan, for $5.95 per month, that gives free calls to Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey, and a discount on calls to other places in Mexico.

Dallas-based Atmos Energy plans to build a $300 million natural-gas salt dome storage site in northeastern Louisiana. The site near Fort Necessity, Louisiana, will create a significant number of long-term construction jobs, ten permanent jobs and generate millions of tax dollars within Franklin Parish. Ultimately, Atmos could invest as much as $700 million in all phases of the project during the next 15 years. Atmos says it plans to carve out three salt dome caverns in the first phase and perhaps at least four more, depending on demand. Each cavern will be about 200 feet wide and 1,500 feet deep, about the size of the Empire State Nuilding. Each will have the capacity to store up to five billion cubic feet of natural gas. The company will create the caverns within the huge, solid block of salt by flushing water into the dome about 6,000 feet below the surface. It’ll then build a multiple-building campus above ground to operate the facility. The 500-acre site is strategically located within a mile of the Tennessee gas pipeline and two Columbia Gulf pipelines and eight miles of three other major gas pipelines.

Cathay Pacific aAirways is launching three weekly, all-cargo flights to Hong Kong from Houston beginning September 2nd. This becomes the fourth scheduled Asian, all-cargo service from George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Total air cargo between Houston and Hong Kong was valued at more than $24 million in 2007. Inbound flights will route through Anchorage and Miami, and departing flights will stop in Anchorage. Houston’s airports handled more than 400,000 metric tons of air cargo last year.

Oilfield services company Halliburton says international activity and a gain on asset sales boosted its first-quarter profit. Halliburton says it earned $584 million, compared with a year-earlier net profit of $552 million. Revenue has risen to $4.03 billion from $3.42 billion a year earlier. Thomson Financial says analysts expected revenue of $3.99 billion. The company, whose U.S. operations are based in Houston, says results were hurt by a charge for a property in Bangladesh, but boosted by a U.S. asset sale and strength in international markets.

Bank of America is the latest big bank to report on the impact of the housing slump and credit crisis. The charlotte-based bank says its quarterly profit was down 77 percent from a year earlier. Bank of America says it was hurt by trading losses and a $3.3 billion increase in reserves for problem loans. The bank, which is acquiring troubled subprime mortgage lender
Countrywide Financial later this year, reported earnings of 1.2 billion–well short of analyst expectations. Last week, Crosstown rival Wachovia said it lost $393 million in the first quarter because of bad credit and tumultuous financial markets. Washington Mutual lost 1.1 billion. Bank of America says it “remains concerned” about the health of the consumer.

The chief executive of Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation says first-quarter financial results at the newspaper chain will fall short of expectations. Robert Decherd said in a letter to shareholders that the company is “looking at every sensible expense reduction.” Decherd says revenue has fallen sharply at the chain’s Riverside Press-Enterprise in southern California, and advertising revenue at the Dallas Morning News are below 2007 levels. Decherd said the company’s first-quarter results to be released April 28th “will be substantially below our expectations” when the company made its 2008 plan and when it met with investors on January 31st. On a separate matter, Decherd said the Securities and Exchange Commission staff finished an investigation into circulation overstatements and plans no further enforcement action against the company. This month, a federal judge in Dallas denied class-action status to a shareholder lawsuit that claims executives defrauded investors by lying about newspaper sales. The Dallas newspaper said in 2004 that it had overstated circulation.

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