Monday PM August 18th, 2008

Houston partnership to build $1.8 billion oil terminal off coast of Freeport…Tropical Storm Fay not impacting offshore oil structures…Brinker International selling majority stake in Romano’s Macaroni Grill…

A Houston partnership is spending $1.8 billion to build and operate an oil terminal 36 miles off the coast of Freeport, according to the Houston Chronicle. Enterprise Products Partners and TEPPCO Partners and the German firm Oiltanking Holdings Americas call the project the Texas Offshore Port System. TOPS will include two floating connections for supertankers to unload crude, and 160 miles of pipelines to bring the oil onshore to refineries in Houston, Port Arthur and Beaumont. The project is similar to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, known as the LOOP, which started up in the late 1970s. Operations offshore Freeport could begin in 2010.

Tropical Storm Fay is not making much of an impact on offshore drilling and production operations. Transocean evacuated about 75 non-essential workers from two deep water rigs off the coast of southern Louisiana. Shell Oil evacuated 425 workers from platforms over the weekend, but suspended the process when forecasts showed the storm in a northerly path over Florida.

Delta Air Lines says it will allow customers booked on flights involving some Georgia and Florida cities to adjust travel plans without penalties or fees because of Tropical Storm Fay. The Atlanta-based airline says the adjustments are being made in advance of flooding and high winds expected from the storm. With some restrictions, customers who purchased tickets by August 16th may make a one-time change without penalty or additional fees if tickets are changed by Thursday. The adjustments include Delta, Delta Connection or Delta-coded flights.

An airline trade group predicts Labor Day travel will drop by 5.7 percent this year. It sees rising airfares and schedule cuts keeping travelers home. The Air Transport Association of America says that 16 million paying passengers will fly globally on U.S. airlines between August 27th and September 3rd. That projection includes a 6.5 percent drop in domestic travel and a one per cent increase in international travel.

Restaurant operator Brinker International said it would sell a majority stake in its Romano’s Macaroni Grill chain to a private equity firm. Under the agreement, Brinker will get $131.5 million in cash. Of that amount, $6 million will be contributed to Mac Acquisition, a unit of the San Francisco-based Golden Gate Capital. Dallas-based Brinker will hold on to a 19.9 per cent stake in the brand. The transaction is expected to close by the end of the year. Brinker said that due to the sale, its cash from operations will rise because of a tax benefit. Other Brinker-owned brands include Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina. There are roughly 220 Macaroni Grill locations worldwide.

The National Association of Home Builders says its housing market index for August remained at an all-time low, but benchmarks related to current sales and expectations of future sales improved. The Washington-based trade association said the index remained unchanged at 16, where it’s been since July. Index readings higher than 50 indicate positive sentiment about the market. The report reflects a survey of hundreds of residential developers nationwide, tracking builders’ perceptions of market conditions. Builders’ gauge of current sales conditions improved one point to 16, while sales expectations over the next six months rose two points to 25. Both reflect optimism over recently enacted housing stimulus legislation.

Fingers Furniture is re-naming its stores Ashley Furniture by the end of March, according to the Houston Chronicle. The outlets are in Willowbrook, Sugar Land, Humble and the Gulf Freeway. The company plans to ultimately operate ten Ashley stores in the Houston area by next September, including new locations in League City and The Woodlands. An Ashley store was opened in Conroe last year, and locations are now in Katy, Pearland and Pasadena.

NASA terminated its $180 million contract with Houston-based Oceaneering International to supply the agency’s next space suit. The selection of Oceaneering as contract recipient was challenged by United Technologies subsidiary Hamilton Sundstrand, which has designed NASA space suits since the 1960s. NASA will hold limited discussions with Oceaneering and United Technologies about new proposals, according to Reuters.

Qwest Communications has reached a tentative agreement with its largest union about a day after a labor contract had expired. Denver-based Qwest announced the three-year deal with the Communications Workers of America, which represents about 20,000 of its employees in 13 states. Qwest also reached a tentative agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents the company’s employees in Montana. The company did not release details of the two contracts. CWA members had voted to authorize a strike, but none was called when the contract expired after 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

A Congressional watchdog says the federal agency charged with backstopping pension benefits for 44 million Americans has understated the risks of its new investment policy. The Government Accountability Office says the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s new strategy could significantly boost the PBGC’s investment returns, but it “will likely also carry more risk than acknowledged by PBCG’s analysis.” The PBCG said earlier this year it would take a more aggressive investment approach by investing more in stocks and adding new alternative investments, such as real estate and private equity funds. The agency has a $14 billion gap between assets and liabilities. The head of the PBCG says the new strategy takes on less risk than most institutional investors.

Turkey’s energy minister says oil flow in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline through Georgia might resume soon. Hilmi Guler said on Monday–nearly two weeks after the critical pipeline was shut down due to a fire–that the pipeline was being fixed and the oil flow could resume “in a few days.” Murat Lecompte, a spokesman for pipeline shareholder British Petroleum, says it is too early to say when the pipeline could be operational again. The pipeline carries Azeri oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, for westbound shipments. Kurdish rebels said they sabotaged the pipeline. Turkish officials did not confirm that claim.

Southern African nations say they’ve launched a free trade agreement after two decades of negotiations. Sunday’s announcement came at the end of a summit of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. It means tariff-free movement of 85 percent of the goods traded among members. But import licenses, visa fees and bureaucratic delays can still make cross-border business expensive. There also are fears industries in South Africa, with the most sophisticated economy in the region, will flood neighboring markets.

A Washington-based research group says media coverage of the economic downturn in the U.S. has lagged behind both economic activity and public interest. The Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed more than 5,000 economic stories in 2007 and the first half of 2008. The stories, by 48 different news outlets, were delivered by cable news channels, network television, radio, newspapers and the Internet. The study found that reliance on government data to track the economy is leading to scattershot coverage that sometimes lags months behind actual economic conditions. At times, reporters were writing about weakening economic trends at the very moment that conditions were starting to improve, or vice versa.

A new survey says fewer Americans are reading newspapers and are instead getting their news online. But television remains the leading source of news in the country. The Pew Research Center’s biannual survey on news consumption habits says younger people tend to get more of their news on the Internet, while older folks use traditional media such as TV and newspapers. Pew said the results show an increasing shift toward online news consumption, but that there is now a sizable group of a more engaged, sophisticated and well-off people that use both traditional and online sources to get their news.


Lowe’s says its second-quarter profit fell 7.9 percent, but still topped Wall Street expectations. The nation’s second-largest home improvement retailer is offering a downbeat sales and profit outlook, however, as it feels the pain from a weak housing market. The Mooresville, N.C. retailer said earnings fell to $938 million in the three months ended August 1st. That compares with a profit of $1.02 billion in the year-ago period. It says sales increased 2.4 per cent to $14.5 billion. Thomson Reuters says analysts expected revenue of $14.1 billion.

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