Thursday AM May 29th, 2008

Texas ranks highest in foreclosure prevention…Airline consolidation talks falter; airlines continue cost-cutting moves…IRS says 60 percent of Americans filed returns electronically…

Texas ranks first for helping homeowners stay in their homes through foreclosure prevention programs according to Virginia-based Genworth Financial. Based on its own loss mitigation efforts, Genworth shows almost 1,000 workouts in Texas, almost double the number of Florida, the next closest state. The company’s president days successful foreclosure prevention efforts from lenders, loan servicers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and mortgage insurers are up, indicating the programs are making a positive impact.

Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods fell by a smaller-than-anticipated amount in April with many sectors outside of transportation showing unexpected strength. The Commerce Department reports that orders for durable goods dropped 0.5 percent, dragged down by big declines in demand for commercial aircraft and autos. However, excluding transportation, orders rose by 2.5 percent last month, the biggest gain in nine months. Orders for electrical equipment and appliances surged by 27.8 percent, the biggest increase on record, with strong demand also registered for primary metals, machinery and communications equipment.

The New York Times is reporting that consolidation talks between United Airlines and US Airways appear to have fallen apart. Citing unnamed people with direct knowledge of the discussions, the Times reports the board of United parent UAL Corporation, and its chief executive, raised questions about the arrangement in the past few days. One person said senior executives at both airlines, as well as external bankers and lawyers working toward a deal, have put it on “permanent hold.” The Times reports a key sticking point appears to be labor complications. Sorting out issues such as union representation and seniority could have taken years, delaying any cost savings from a deal. US Airways Group has still not reached agreements with all of its unions following its 2005 combination with America West Airlines.

American Airlines says it plans to discontinue service between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and London’s Stansted Airport. The decision comes less than a year after the service was launched. It will be effective July 2nd. The move is part of the airline’s recently announced plan to cut capacity in response to rising fuel prices and a faltering economy. American said it will continue to offer its full schedule between JFK and London’s Heathrow Airport. American plans to cut domestic flight capacity by 11 percent to 12 percent in the fourth quarter, after the peak summer season is over.

American plans to discontinue its Chicago-Buenos Aires service and Boston-San Diego service on September 3rd. The nation’s largest carrier also says it will discontinue its Chicago-Honolulu service on January 5th. It’s Fort Worth-based parent company, AMR Corporation, plans to restructure American and American Eagle operations at San Juan, Puerto Rico, beginning in September. American Airlines is facing the possibility of a future cash crunch amid soaring fuel prices.

In what could be the ultimate cost-cutting move by airlines buffeted by sky-high fuel prices, US Airways says it will eliminate free snacks in coach class on all its domestic flights starting June 1st. US Airways also says it has matched last week’s fare hikes by United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. The increases are from $10 to $60 per round trip and vary based on the length of the flight. US Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant says the move to cut free snacks was needed to save money in a time of extremely high fuel costs. The price of jet fuel has soared this year with crude oil prices in the $130 per barrel range. The airline is still providing complimentary soft drinks.

Blockbuster unveiled a prototype of an in-store kiosk for downloading movies at its annual meeting. The presentation was part of Dallas-based Blockbuster plan to transform into more than a DVD rental chain. The company’s proposed takeover of electronics retailer Circuit City for just over $1 billion was only mentioned briefly during the meeting. Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Keyes said the company is still in deciding whether to pursue the acquisition. He didn’t say when a decision will be made. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn, Blockbuster’s largest shareholder, did not attend the morning meeting. To lift concerns about Blockbuster’s ability to finance the deal, Icahn has said he is prepared to buy Circuit City if all else fails. The sleek prototype kiosk is just one way that Blockbuster is looking to deliver movies digitally. Customers have a range of features to make movie choices, including previews and recommendations. Keyes said the design is likely to change with testing. He also says the company is working to reduce the download time for movies to about 30 seconds.

Schlumberger Carbon Services and General Electric Energy are working together on carbon sequestration storage and technology. Schlumberger will provide expertise, technology and project management while Atlanta-based GE will provide integrated gasification combined-cycle systems to capture carbon dioxide.

KBR has been awarded a construction and fabrication contract by Calgary, Canada-based North West Upgrading, valued at about $277 million. KBR will prefabricate 40 modules for part of a unit that converts bitumen into higher value hydrocarbon products.

Unsuspecting property owners around the country are getting trampled in an old-fashioned land rush by natural gas companies. Stories of fast-talking industry representatives using scare tactics to strong-arm people into signing lowball leases are popping up in rural areas and suburbs from New York to West Virginia to parts of Indiana and Texas. All sit atop largely untapped natural gas deposits made suddenly valuable by soaring prices and improved drilling techniques. A West Virginia farmer and convenience store owner named Brad Castle said he and his father thought they were getting a windfall when they signed a $5-an-acre lease and promise of 12.5 percent royalties for the gas rights to their 800 acres. His feelings of trust evaporated when rival companies started offering $350 an acre and royalties as high as 15 percent. Gas companies such as Chesapeake Energy make no bones about their desire to lock up leasing rights. The Oklahoma City-based natural gas giant calls its aggressive lease acquisition program the “land grab” in its latest annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

IRS says more Americans have been filing their tax returns electronically. The tax agency says as of the middle of this month, it had received more than 86 million individual tax returns filed electronically. That compared with under 80 million for all of 2007, accounting for 60 percent of all returns filed so far this year. A small part of the growth in e-filing is thought to have involved people who normally aren’t required to file returns. They filed this year to claim an economic stimulus payment.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross is worried about a possible surge in food-related violence, and says it’s not just a matter of higher prices. Jakob Kellenberger says, “it becomes a question of survival, of just having access to food.” He refused to say which parts of the world he’s most concerned about. Food riots have been reported recently in Haiti, Egypt, and Somalia. Kellenberger says much of the burden of any food-related violence would fall on the Red Cross. He says it already delivers food to isolated or dangerous places where the U.N.’s World Food Program can’t operate. The Red Cross has added more than $60 million worth of food assistance to its planned budget for 2008.

A new federal report looking at the impact of climate change on American crops over the next 25 years paints an unsettling picture. It predicts greater risk of crop failures, less water, and outbreaks of invasive species and insects. The report says the water supply in the west is becoming harder to manage because snow in the mountains is melting sooner. Forests strained by drought in the west and southeast are easy prey for tree-killing insects. The report adds that rising carbon dioxide levels are changing the metabolism of grasses and shrubs on range land, which is decreasing the protein levels in plants eaten by cattle. Climate change can mean longer growing seasons. But the scientists say that doesn’t necessarily mean bigger crop yields because plants have certain growth patterns.

Farmers will be able to use millions of acres of idle land for making hay and grazing animals this summer. Normally, the Conservation Reserve Program, which started in 1985, pays landowners to do nothing with environmentally sensitive land. But Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer says high crop prices and tight food supplies have increased the demand for farm land. He says the livestock industry has been hit the hardest. More than 24 million acres of land will be eligible for use this year only. More than 34 million acres are enrolled in the program, and the government says the most vulnerable land won’t be eligible for use. Critics say taking land out of the program could adversely impact wildlife and hunters.

A group of Muslim workers claim they were fired by a tortilla factory for refusing to wear uniforms rather than their traditional loose-fitting skirts and scarves. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said that six Somali women claim they were ordered by a manager to wear pants and shirts they considered immodest by Islamic standards. The women have filed a religious discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Gruma Corporation, the Irving-based parent company of Mission Foods, released a written statement denying that any employees were terminated or disciplined at the factory in Minnesota. However, the company made clear the six women have been relieved of their responsibilities for the time being, and may ultimately lose their jobs if they don’t wear uniforms. CAIR called on Mission Foods to reinstate the women, though the group declined to disclose the names of the women or make them available for interviews.

The United States has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over European tariffs on high-tech good such as computer monitors and printers. The global commerce body confirmed Wednesday that it received the U.S. complaint, which initiates a 60-day consultation period with the European Union. After that the U.S. may ask a WTO panel to rule on the dispute. U.S. companies have long complained about the European import taxes. The dispute concerns the 27-nation EU’s compliance with a 1996 agreement on lowering tariffs for high-tech goods.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has struck a deal with Sony to use the cable industry’s technology in Sony sets as soon as possible. That would mean advanced “two-way” services without the need for a set-top box or, in most cases, a separate remote. The cable association says it hopes other electronics manufacturers will follow Sony’s lead. Under the new system, customers will get a “cable card” from their provider that will fit into their set and unscramble the signal. Cable cards have been around for a while, but have been troublesome and never popular. It’s hoped the new agreement will clear-up the technical glitches.

Never mind the fact that your mother wouldn’t want you cursing at work. There’s another reason to avoid it: cursing at work could cost you your job. A recent poll of more than 2,000 executives found that more than 80 percent find a foul-mouthed colleague unacceptable to work alongside in the office. More than a third of bosses have issued a formal warning for using inappropriate language, and six percent have fired someone for swearing. The majority of those who responded to the online survey said they have given an official warning for personal calls, loud talking and revealing clothing. It was conducted by recruiting company

Police are reporting an increase in gas tank-tapping–the drilling or puncturing of gas tanks or gas lines to drain the petroleum booty that now averages almost $4 a gallon, even though cases of gas station drive-offs and siphoning remain much more common. For veteran mechanics and law enforcement officers, it’s reminiscent of the gas siphoning in the early 1970s during the Middle East oil embargo. One Detroit auto repair shop operator says pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles are more vulnerable to the thieves who puncture the tanks and use a container to catch the fuel. Plastic tanks are often the target because they’re safer to drill into. It’s not just gas and diesel that are being stolen. Restaurants from Berkeley, California, to Sedgwick, Kansas, are reporting thefts of old cooking oil worth thousands of dollars.

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