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Tuesday AM August 12th, 2008

Creator of back-to-school sales tax holiday stages awareness event…Federal Reserve says more banks are tightening lending standards on mortgages, consumer and business loans…Best Buy plans vending kiosks inside terminals at major airports…


The state senator who created the sales tax holiday in 1999 staged a news conference at Macy’s downtown to publicize this year’s back-to-school tax holiday. Senator Rodney Ellis is calling for an expansion of the tax-free holiday, proposing that energy efficient and hurricane preparedness items be added to the list of eligible products. Representative Ellen Cohen would like to see a longer tax-free holiday. The 10th annual tax holiday runs Friday through Sunday. Tax-free items include backpacks, gym suits and uniforms, footwear, and other back-to-school essentials priced below $100. Texans have saved nearly $388.1 million since the bill was passed. Last year, consumers saved some $52.1 million.

The International Council of Shopping Centers is forecasting a modest one per cent increase in July-September retail sales nationwide compared with last year. They predict a lower household spending average of more than $400. But the National Retail Federation says the average family will spend $594 on school items and clothing, compared with $563 last year.

The Federal Reserve is reporting that more banks are tightening lending standards on home mortgages, consumer and business loans as a deepening credit crisis exerts a heavier toll on the economy. The Fed said Monday that the percentage of banks reporting tighter lending standards rose across various loan types in its July survey compared to levels in April. Back then, the central bank had found the percentage of banks reporting tighter lending standards was already near historic highs. The Fed says its new survey, conducted in early July, found that about 75 percent of the banks surveyed indicated they had tightened their lending standards for prime mortgages. That’s up from about 60 percent in the previous survey.

A growing number of San Antonio families are turning to food banks and public assistance as they feel the effects of high food prices and an anemic economy. The San Antonio Food Bank helped almost 316,000 families in the fiscal year that ended in June. That’s an 85 percent increase from the previous year. The food bank gave away about 30 million pounds of food in the last fiscal year, only second to the 33 million pounds it gave away when thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees arrived here. State officials say 10,000 more people in Bexar County were on food stamps than the previous year. Statewide, enrollment increased by 190,000 people. The increase may be the result of variables in data collection. But State Health and Human Services spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the state is adding staff to help handle rising caseloads in programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

Texas farmers and ranchers looking to cut their energy costs can get help from a new program that offers a free assessment of their resources. The State Energy Conservation Office Texas is a division of the Texas Comptroller’s Office. It will examine utility costs and energy consumption in farm and business operations, according to a release from the Comptroller. Producers can also get help in finding loan and grant programs to increase efficiency or purchase renewable energy systems, the release states. The energy office will hold workshops in Stephenville, Lubbock, Nacogdoches and San Antonio throughout August and September.

Houston-based Dresser-Rand Services is acquiring all the stock of California-based Arrow Industries, according to the Houston Business Journal. And Dresser-Rand is acquiring the assets of Enginuity. Dresser-Rand Group supplies rotating equipment to the oil, gas, petrochemical and process industries.

Boots & Coots International Well Control has signed a $28 million three-year contract with Algeria’s national oil company to provide hydraulic workover services, according to the Houston business Journal. Boots & Coots provides pressure control services to worldwide onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration companies.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo says he is expanding his investigation into the collapse of the auction-rate securities market to include JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wachovia. Late last week, Cuomo’s office reached settlements that forced Swiss bank UBS to repurchase $20 billion in the securities, while Citigroup agreed to buy back $7 billion of the securities. Auction-rate securities are instruments that resemble corporate debt, except the interest rates are reset at regular auctions, some as frequently as once a week. In February, the market for the securities collapsed. Regulators have been investigating banks to determine if they misled investors about the safety of the securities.

Pilgrim’s Pride says it will idle its chicken processing plant in Clinton, Arkansas, as the company struggles with high feed costs and lower market demand. Arkansas state economic officials say at last count more than 350 employees work at the Clinton plant. Officials say they don’t know how the announcement would affect the work force there. Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride says the idling at Clinton, coupled with stopping production at a Louisiana plant, will eliminate about 600 jobs. The company says it will help employees find other jobs and will reopen the plant once “industry margins can be sustained.”

Best Buy plans to add a dozen vending kiosks inside terminals at major airports across the country. The Twin Cities-area-based company’s move is part of a new pilot program Best Buy calls “Best Buy Express.” The nation’s largest consumer electronics retailer is partnering with a San Francisco-based vending machine company called ZoomSystems for the project that will install the small automated stores at eight airports. The machines will stock cell phone and computer accessories, along with digital cameras, portable data storage devices, headphones, travel adapters, electronic chargers and other gadgets. The self-serve kiosks will be installed by September 1st in airports in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

An industry group reports that newsstand sales of U.S. magazines dropped six per cent in the first half of this year. Rising food and gasoline costs are seen causing shoppers to cut back on nonessential spending. Most top titles, including best-selling Cosmopolitan and O, the Oprah Winfrey magazine, had sharp declines. Of the top ten newsstand sellers, only People and In Style posted gains. Overall magazine circulation, which includes subscription and newsstand sales, was flat, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

A new report says the number of new broadband Internet subscribers in the U.S. fell in the second quarter to the lowest level in at least seven years. The 20 largest cable and telephone companies added 887,000 high-speed Internet subscribers in the quarter, according to Leichtman Research Group’s tally. It is based on public reports and estimates. The number of new customers is half that of the second quarter of 2007. Saturation of the marketplace, along with the slowing economy, are seen as likely reasons for the slowdown.

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