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Thursday PM August 21st, 2008

Freeport LNG seeks to re-export liquified natural gas during slow U.S. demand…Former El Paso Corporation natural gas traders given prison sentences…U.S. Postal Service offering early retirement to offset $1.5 billion in losses…


Operators of Freeport LNG want to re-export the fuel to other countries while the liquified natural gas business in the U.S. is slow. The facility took its first shipment last April, as higher natural gas prices in Asia and Europe diverted shipments of LNG away from U.S. ports. The consortium of owners, which includes ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical and others, has asked the Department of Energy to grant it a permit to export the super-chilled natural gas. The company wants to store foreign LNG shipments and then reload them back on tankers for delivery to the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and India.

A former El Paso natural gas trader has been sentenced to 28 months in prison. Greg Singleton was sentenced for reporting false trading data to industry publications. He was found guilty of a single count of wire fraud.

Oil prices are rising once again. Traders say today’s rise of as much as $6 a barrel reflects increased tensions with Russia, amid fears of a disruption of energy shipments. The market is also said to be affected by a weaker dollar and worries about tightening output from OPEC countries. Russia is the world’s second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia. It supplies a quarter of the European Union’s oil and half of its natural gas.

The price at the pump fell overnight. AAA says the average for regular unleaded gas fell 1.5 cents overnight to $3.70 a gallon, nationwide. The average retail price of gasoline in Texas tumbled nine cents this week to settle at an average $3.55 per gallon. AAA Texas reported the national decline in gas prices was seven cents, to reach $3.70 per gallon. Fort Worth and Houston had the least expensive gasoline in Texas this week, with an average of $3.48—down a dime from last week. AAA says El Paso had the most expensive gasoline, at $3.66 per gallon. Association spokesman Dan Ronan says the price of gasoline has declined for five weeks, as crude oil prices also fell.

Ridership on Amtrak’s service between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth continues to rise as gas prices remain high. The Heartland Flyer had 40 percent more passengers last month than it did in July a year ago. Amtrak reported having about 11,700 passengers last month, as compared to 8,300 a year ago. Amtrak says ridership is up by 17 percent during the past ten months. There were 67,000 passengers in the period from October to July compared with 57,000 in the same period a year earlier. Supporters had to rally in 2005 to extend public funding of the daily train service, which is now considering extending to Tulsa or Kansas City.

Devon Energy says it plans to build a new headquarters in downtown Oklahoma City that features a 54-story, 925-foot tall skyscraper. What will be the tallest building in Oklahoma is estimated to cost about $750 million. CEO Larry Nichols says the building, set to be completed in 2012, will house more than 2,200 employees initially with annual payroll of $265 million. Devon employees are now located in five buildings in the city. The company bills itself as the largest U.S.-based oil and gas producer and is 221st on the latest fortune 500 list, with $12 billion in revenue.

National Oilwell Varco is breaking ground on a new $12 million service center in Rosenberg this month. The facility on Reese Road near Highway 59 and FM 2218 will employ about 150 people, and will service equipment used in the drilling process. Construction begins this month, and opens in mid-2009.

Houston-based SAT Corp. has been purchased by Invensys subsidiary Wonderware in a $52 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. SAT is a developer of mobile workforce management and decision support systems founded in Clear Lake in 1995. It produces software for task management, workflow and scheduling.

The government says the number of newly laid-off workers seeking unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, the second straight weekly drop from a six-year high. The Labor Department says applications for jobless benefits dropped to 432,000, down by 13,000 from the previous week. That was a steeper drop than analysts expected. But claims remain elevated compared with recent years. The four-week moving average climbed to 445,750, the highest in almost seven years.

A private business group says its measure of the economy’s health fell more than expected in July, pushed lower by declines in the stock market, drops in new building permits and rising unemployment. The New York-based Conference Board’s Forecast of Future Economic Activity fell 0.7 percent, far short of the consensus estimate of a 0.2 percent decline by Wall Street economists surveyed by Thomson/IFR. Revised June data showed no change to the index, which has slipped 0.9 percent for the six months ending in July.

Banks borrowed a bit less over the past week from the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending program, while Wall Street firms passed for a third straight week. The Fed reported that commercial banks averaged $17.51 billion in daily borrowing over the past week. That compared with a daily average of $17.70 billion in the previous week. Investment houses for a third week did not take out any loans, a possible sign that pressures on them for short-term credit may be easing.

The person delivering your mail may be heading into retirement earlier than expected. The U.S. Postal Service, facing losses that could come close to $1.5 billion this year, is offering early retirement to thousands of clerks, mail handlers and supervisors. The offers, without incentives or bonuses, are for workers 50 and older who have 20 years of service, as well as employees of any age who have 25 years of service. The Postal Service estimates that as many as 130,000 employees may be eligible. The USPS also wants to consolidate or close mail handling facilities because of declining mail volume. The agency earlier had proposed having a private company operate its bulk mail centers across the country.

T. Boone Pickens says private financing can pay for energy transmission lines but it’s up to Congress to “open up the lanes.” Officials have said a lack of transmission lines is a major problem in developing alternate energy sources such as wind. But Pickens told an energy forum in Fargo that Congress has kept certain areas off limits from transmission lines and many people don’t want them in their back yards. Pickens said, “the money will be there for transmission if Congress will open up those lanes.” The Texas oilman, who’s a big promoter of wind energy, says he took it as a good sign that no one got up and left during his Fargo speech.

Two billionaires are backing a documentary that they hope will sound a nationwide alarm about the national debt. Warren Buffett and Pete Peterson say the federal government has racked up more than $50 trillion in debts that will saddle future generations with economic problems that will make current economic turbulence look like a trip to the credit counselor’s office. The film “I.O.U.S.A.” debuts in 359 theaters around the country and the producers hope to bring it to TV early next year. Peterson and Buffett both are prominent investors. But they don’t share a political philosophy: Peterson is backing John McCain for president and Buffett supports Barack Obama. What they’re hoping to do is make the nation’s budget and trade deficits a topic of national concern. As one of the key figures in the film puts it: “we need to start making some tough choices if we want our future to be better than our past.”

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo says regulators have reached settlements with Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs Group and Deutsche Bank over their roles in selling risky auction-rate securities to investors. Cuomo and other regulators previously reached $42 billion worth of settlements with five major Wall Street banks, including Citigroup and Switzerland’s UBS. The AG threatened earlier Thursday to sue Merrill Lynch if an agreement was not reached by the end of the day. The investigations are examining how brokerages sold auction-rate securities before the $330 billion market collapsed in February. Federal and state authorities believe that banks pitched the investments as safe.

Mortgage interest rates have eased a bit over the past week. Freddie Mac says the average for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages stands at 6.47 percent, down from last week’s average of 6.52 percent. The average for a 15-year fixed is six percent. That’s down from 6.07 percent last week. For one-year treasury-indexed adjustable-rate mortgages, Freddie Mac says the average is 5.29 percent, up from 5.18 percent last week. Freddie Mac Chief Economist Frank Nothaft says signs of weakening in the housing market helped to pull fixed rates down over the past week.

Outsiders will be given limited access to Saudi Arabia’s stock market—a move that could open up the Persian Gulf’s largest market to increased foreign investment. The decision, announced by the country’s Capital Market Authority, will allow certain authorized market players to enter into financial transactions known as swap agreements with nonresident institutional or individual foreign investors. Although the new regulations do not allow foreigners to own shares of Saudi companies outright, they do for the first time let outsiders reap economic benefits of the shares. Previously, foreign investors outside the Gulf could only invest in Saudi stocks indirectly through mutual funds.

The government will allow food producers to start zapping fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce with just enough radiation to kill e. coli and other dangerous germs, a key safety move amid increasing outbreaks from raw produce. Irradiated meat has been around for years, particularly ground beef. But food companies long worried that zapping leafy greens with x-rays or other means of radiation would leave them limp. The Food and Drug Administration has determined that modern irradiation techniques kill food-poisoning germs without compromising the safety or nutrient value of raw spinach and lettuce. Its new rule takes effect Friday.

Dallas-based Lone Star Funds will buy 90.8 percent of German lender IKB, which has been badly hit by the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis. Lone Star is a private equity firm and the German company’s biggest shareholder. Germany’s state-owned KFW Development Bank didn’t give the terms of its deal. The news cheered IKB investors who pushed up the bank’s shares by more than seven percent to $4.22 in Frankfurt trading. KFW currently holds a 45.5 percent stake in Duesseldorf-based IKB, but that will rise to 90.8 percent as part of an already agreed-upon capital increase. KFW had been shopping IKB around for nearly a year and its governing council agreed late yesterday that Lone Star would be the right buyer. Lone Star, founded in 1995, currently manages more than $13 billion (?88.2 billion).

Governor Sarah Palin says the first round of permanent fund dividend checks will be deposited for residents on September 12th. She announced the date during a news conference to discuss natural gas pipeline development. Last year, nearly every resident received a $1,654 check. This year’s checks are expected to be bigger, but haven’t been calculated yet. Whatever the final amount is, the state is adding $1,200 each to help offset energy costs. This one-time energy relief payout from the state treasury is the product of an energy relief package the legislature passed two weeks ago. It’s also driving the early distribution. First checks normally would have been deposited Oct. 2nd, but earlier this week Palin said the schedule would be accelerated so residents can brace for winter fuel costs.

Frontier Airlines is the latest airline to announce it will start charging fees when certain customers redeem frequent-flier miles. Starting September 15th, Frontier will add a $25 fee on EarlyReturns award tickets and $75 on EarlyReturns award tickets booked for travel within 14 days. Some passengers are exempt from some fees, including frequent fliers with a certain amount of miles. The Denver-based carrier, which filed for bankruptcy protection in April, is also raising the amount of miles it takes to earn a free domestic round-trip ticket to 20,000, from 15,000. Other redemption levels are increasing by between 5,000 and 10,000 miles.

The government is banning phone calls of prerecorded sales messages unless consumers agree to receive the calls. The ban becomes effective September 1st of next year. The FTC has also announced that by December all prerecorded calls must provide an opt-out selection to make it easy for consumers to stop getting those calls. The agency says the rules won’t affect informational prerecorded messages, such as messages to notify consumers of appointments and cancellations, because they don’t attempt to sell goods or services. The FTC says there were more than 13,000 consumers comments that objected to the telemarketing industry’s request to gain more flexibility to make recorded sales calls.

The maker of Snickers and M&Ms candies says it is raising prices on various items to offset the higher costs of raw materials, packaging and energy. The statement issued this week by Mars follows a similar announcement by its larger rival Hershey’s. The privately held Mars did not say which products will go up in price, or by how much. But it said the majority of the price increases will take effect October 17th, while several other changes will be introduced through next March. Mars also announced a price increase in January, as did Hershey.

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