Monday PM May 19th, 2008

Gasoline averaging over $4 per gallon in some states…PreBuy Electric customers switched to "provider of last resort"…Pew Internet and American Life Project says Web influences buying decisions less than friends or sales personnel…

Higher costs are adding pressure to drivers planning road trips for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend. Americans are now paying an average of $3.79 for a gallon of regular gas. That’s according to a survey by AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Drivers in some parts of the country are paying considerably more. Pump prices in parts of California have been stuck above $4 a gallon for weeks now. Prices in Alaska and Connecticut are averaging just about $4 a gallon statewide. The Lundberg Survey shows pump prices averaging $4 a gallon for the first time in two metropolitan areas: Chicago and New York’s Long Island. It finds the cheapest city to be Tucson, Arizona, where a gallon of regular sells for $3.48 on average.

A private business group says a forward-looking gauge of economic activity pointed higher in April. The Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose 0.1 percent. That is a sign that the economy remains sluggish, but could avoid a dramatic downturn. The rise matches the increase in March. The Conference Board’s index is designed to forecast economic activity three to six months down the road. Six of ten leading indicators rose in April, including stock prices, interest rate spreads and housing permits. Those increases more than offset the sharp declines in average weekly hours worked and consumer spending.

Customers of PreBuy Electric are being switched to other electric providers after the Bridgeport-based company defaulted on payment obligations to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. That includes several thousand customers in the CenterPoint transmission area, which includes Houston. ERCOT began the automated switching process early Saturday morning.

A new study suggests the Internet may not be as powerful as some may believe. The survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project says the Internet’s influence on buying decisions is small compared to the impact of friends or even sales personnel. Pew’s associate director says the Internet “helps people eliminate irrelevant alternatives.” He says it’s most important in getting better deals and having a more focused search. The study looked specifically at behavior in buying music, cell phones and homes or renting apartments.

Federal authorities have charged 38 people with stealing names, social security numbers, credit card data and other personal information from unsuspecting Internet users. Indictments unsealed in Los Angeles and New Haven, Connecticut, say a global crime ring sought to rip off thousands of consumers and hundreds of financial institutions. The Justice Department announced the busts in two separate but related cases Monday morning during a trip by the deputy attorney general to Romania. More than half of the people charged are Romanian, although the alleged scam also operated from the United States, Canada, Portugal and Pakistan.

President Bush says he remains opposed to any homeowner rescue package that would “bail out lenders.” The president’s comments came as Senate leaders are working on a bipartisan bill to help strapped borrowers get government-backed mortgages, although Bush did not comment on that legislation directly. Bush has already threatened to veto a House version of the bill he considers bloated. In the oval office, Bush told reporters that “laws shouldn’t bail out lenders.” He said the government ought to be helping credit-worthy people stay in their homes. The president pushed Congress to pass legislation to more tightly regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored companies that finance home loans.

Federal health authorities have told a Pasadena company to close and recall all of its dried smoked catfish steaks and other smoked seafood. The recall goes back to June 2007. The Feds say hope food supply failed to develop safety standards, leading to a risk of bacteria contamination in its products. The Food and Drug Administration says there have been no reported illnesses. The FDA says Hope Food Supply’s products were distributed nationwide. The FDA this week directed the company to close until it has implemented the right plan to identify all food safety hazards and preventive measures to control risks. For more information, consumers can call the FDA at 1-888-723-3366.

The Labor Department tomorrow releases the Producer Price
, measuring inflation at the wholesale level. Wednesday, the minutes are released from the Federal Reserve’s meeting at the end of April. On Friday, the National Association of Realtors reports on sales of previously-owned homes, seen easing.

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