Friday AM May 16th, 2008

Industrial output drops slightly; unemployment benefit applications increase slightly…Boeing outlines progress on International Space Station work…University of Houston approves tuition increase…

The Federal Reserve says the nation’s industrial output dropped in April. The decline reflects big cutbacks in autos and other manufacturing industries. Industrial production dropped 0.7 percent last month, more than double the decline economists had expected. Manufacturing output fell by 0.8 percent with half of that weakness coming from large cutbacks in auto production which has been beset by falling demand for new cars, and also problems related to a strike at a parts supplier for General Motors. The drop in overall production pushed the industrial operating rate to its lowest point in more than two years.

The number of newly laid-off workers applying for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week, indicating the weak economy was still weighing on the job market. The Labor Department reported that applications for jobless benefits rose by 6,000 last week to 371,000. The gain was in line with expectations. The weak economy has triggered four straight months of job losses, often a sign that a recession has started. However, the April drop was just one-fourth the size of job losses in March, giving hope that the current economic slowdown may not be as severe as the past two recessions.

Executives from Boeing outlined progress on their work for the upcoming space shuttle flight. STS-124 is set for launch on May 31st. Boeing’s Joy Bryant says the International Space Station will be completed over the next 11 trips.

“Clearly, from an assembly standpoint the station represents the platform where we can learn a lot of the assembly techniques needed for exploration as well as, as we get a six-person crew on board in the ’09 timeframe, we’ll be able to get up to a 100 percent utilization on the science. So it not only affects our exploration side of the house but also the scientific mission for NASA. We’ve had 73 missions to date to station—25 of those have been shuttle—and we have 11 left for shuttle launches with respect to the station assembly.”

Bryant recently saw visual evidence of international cooperation in the International Space Station program.

“And just on a personal note, (I) was reminded of the international cooperation. Recently I looked over the stars of Houston and there was actually three additional bright stars. ATV was on approach, and station was standing ready and shuttle was preparing for return. So I’m very proud of Boeing’s efforts in support with NASA so we make sure that station continues to stand ready, meeting both the nation’s science and exploration needs both now and in the future.”

Boeing is also working on vehicle upgrades and preparations for the follow-up flight of STS-125, which will service the Hubble Space Telescope.

The University of Houston System Board of Regents has approved a 5.9 percent tuition increase for the University of Houston and UH-Clear Lake. UH-Downtown will see a 4.1 percent increase. UH-Victoria will raise tuition five percent. All the increases go into effect with the fall 2008 semester. That means that 12 credit hours at UH will cost an in-state undergraduate about $185 more in tuition and fees. Students at UH-Clear Lake will pay about $134 more. UH-Downtown students will pay about $84 more. Students at UH-Victoria will pay about $102 more per semester. About 19 percent of the approximately $17 million in additional revenue will be dedicated for increased financial aid. Tuition and fees amount to about 37 percent of the system’s annual operating budget. The state pays about 36 percent.

The Internal Revenue Service says up to 350,000 households didn’t get their $300 per child refund that should have been part of their economic stimulus rebate checks. The tax agency says human error and computer glitches were responsible for the problem affecting a tiny percentage of the 130 million taxpayers expected to benefit from the paybacks. The agency plans to mail out checks in July to those who missed out on the child refund.

A renewable energy company founded by Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens says it’s buying 667 wind turbines from General Electric. The longtime oilman’s company, Mesa Power, plans to use the turbines to start what it expects will be the world’s largest wind energy project. The Pampa Wind Project will be located in Texas. The turbines in the deal can each produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity. That makes the project’s first phase–one of four planned–able to make enough to power more than 300,000 average U.S. homes. Pickens says the first phase of the project will cost about $2 billion, with power coming online by early 2011.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips has run into delays in its bid to sell 274 gas stations in Scandinavia to Norway’s state-controlled Statoil. The European Union has initiated an anti-trust probe to determine whether the deal could diminish competition in retail gas markets in Sweden and Norway.

The Federal Reserve has auctioned $7.2 billion in safe treasury securities to big investment firms, part of an ongoing effort to ease credit stresses. The auction–the eighth of its kind–was held Thursday and drew bids less than the $25 billion being made available. In exchange for the 28-day loan of treasury securities, bidding firms can put up as collateral more risky investments, including certain shunned mortgage-backed securities and bonds backed by federally guaranteed student loans. Bidders’ identities are not made public. The program began March 27th.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says commercial banks and other financial institutions need to beef up their ability to detect and protect themselves against risks like the credit and mortgage debacles. Bernanke says said that would provide a more stable financial system by making firms more resilient to shocks. The Fed chief made the comments Thursday in prepared remarks to a Federal Reserve banking conference in Chicago.

A new survey finds the U.S. tops world competitiveness rankings for the 15th straight year. But the U.S. economy is showing the same signs of weakness that sank booming Japan in the early 1990s. Singapore and Hong Kong ranked just behind the U.S., as they did last year. Switzerland jumped two places to fourth, while Luxembourg rounded out the top five most competitive national economies. The U.S. position was cemented by its domestic economy, which is the world’s strongest. It tops all others in its amount of investments, stock purchases and commercial service exports. The U.S. also ranks as the easiest place to secure venture capital for business development and dominates all other economies in key technology criteria such as computers in use, according to the report. The World Competitiveness Yearbook is published by the Lausanne, Switzerland-based, IMD Business School.

Toyota’s Prius has reached a major milestone. It’s become the world’s first gas-electric hybrid vehicle to hit the one million mark in sales. The Prius went on sale more than a decade ago in Japan. And its popularity is growing amid surging gas prices and environmental concerns. More than half the total number of Priuses have been sold in North America. The vehicle is by far Toyota’s most popular model. The automaker says it plans to sell a million hybrids a year within the next few years. Toyota says the Prius has saved the earth 4.5 million metric tons of global warming gases. The latest Prius gets an estimated 48 miles to a gallon in city driving and 45 miles a gallon the highway.

Cash America International says it will close up to 139 stores in Ohio. The announcement came one day after the Ohio Senate approved a bill that would ban two-week loans that support the payday lending industry. The Fort Worth-based lender says it will stop operating in Ohio before the bill takes effect this summer. The company didn’t say how many employees it has in Ohio. In total, the payday loan business says it has 6,000 jobs in the state. The Ohio House must approve the bill. House Speaker John Husted says he expects it to be an easy step. Governor Ted Strickland says he supports the measure. The bill reduces the annualized interest rates on short-term loans to 28 percent, down from the current 391 percent.

Comcast says KTXH channel 20 has been added to its HD lineup. Customers with an HD-capable set-top box can tune into high definition programming on cable channel 304, including Houston Astros games. Comcast says it offers more HD programming than any other provider.

J.C. Penney says a pullback in consumer spending has cut its first-quarter profit in half, and predicts “difficult” conditions for the entire year. Plano-based Penney says net income dropped to $120 million from $238 million a year ago. Total sales fell five percent to $4.13 billion from $4.35 billion. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial expected slightly higher revenue of $4.17 billion. “Our financial performance in the first quarter was clearly impacted by the weakened consumer environment,” said Myron E. Ullman III, chairman and chief executive.

Blockbuster says it swung to a first-quarter profit on lower expenses and improved results from its subscription service and domestic sales growth. The Dallas-based company reported its earnings after preferred dividends was $42.6 million. That compared with a loss of $51.8 million a year earlier. Blockbuster says revenue slipped five percent to $1.39 billion from $1.47 billion after closing or selling 412 stores. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial forecast sales of $1.44 billion. Blockbuster wants to buy electronics chain Circuit City.

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