Monday PM September 22nd, 2008

President and Congress consider steps to halt financial meltdown…Galveston’s mayor to ask Washington for more than $2 billion in federal aid for Hurricane Ike damage…About a third of Centerpoint Energy's customers still without electricity…

Pressuring Congress, President Bush says the “whole world” is watching to see if Republicans and Democratic lawmakers can quickly agree on a plan to halt a financial meltdown without adding extra elements to the legislation. Bush’s move Monday came as some leading Congressional Democrats called for a cautious, deliberative approach to stabilizing troubled financial markets. Some Democrats are seeking to add provisions to the massive rescue bill, such as limiting pay for executives of the troubled companies in need of the bailout. The president said such efforts would “undermine the effectiveness of the plan.”

Once the financial markets stabilize, taxpayers should be “first in line” to get back some of the money the government is putting up. That view is being voiced by Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, the Democrat who heads the Senate Banking Committee. He tells CBS that lawmakers won’t see eye-to-eye on a $700 billion measure the Bush administration is seeking to buy up bad mortgage loans. Dodd says it’s just as important to act responsibly on it as it is to act quickly. He says lawmakers don’t want to have to come back in a month to pass another rescue plan. And another key Democrat is warning that Congress won’t pass the plan right away. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank tells ABC that the Treasury Secretary is being “entirely unreasonable” to think lawmakers will pass it without adding provisions the Democrats want. One provision would limit pay for executives of the troubled companies. A Republican on the panel, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, agreed, saying, “we’re doing it for the taxpayers,” and not for the company executives.

The world’s major economic powers are vowing to help the U.S. resolve the growing credit crisis. Finance ministers from other group of seven countries have welcomed the steps being taken in Washington to stem the crisis, and pledge to do all they can to fix the problems that threaten global economic health and stability. The Bush administration and Congress are working a plan that could mark one of the biggest bailouts in U.S. history. The G-7 finance ministers endorsed it and said they’re “ready to take whatever actions may be necessary, individually and collectively.” They offered no specifics, but sought to send a reassuring message that they’re on top of the situation. Besides the United States, the G-7 includes Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada.

Britain’s treasury chief, Alistair Darling, says global action is needed to deal with the financial crisis plaguing the economy, and is vowing to help Britons through the crisis. Darling also called for global supervision of the banking system in order to avoid future mistakes during a speech at the ruling Labour party’s annual conference. He also laid out his agenda for helping average Britons get through the dual problems of the credit crunch and rising food, oil and other commodities prices–including promising a tax rebate for many and offering some low-price house buyers a tax break. He vowed to do whatever is necessary to maintain the country’s financial stability.

Galveston’s mayor says she will ask Washington lawmakers for more than $2 billion in federal aid for her city devastated by Hurricane Ike. Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas says she will meet with a Senate Subcommittee Tuesday to seek the $2.3 billion for the city, ports and hospital damaged by the storm more than a week ago. But she says officials haven’t tallied up the total figure needed to repair and rebuild. Galveston officials also said Monday that when residents are allowed to return Wednesday, those whose homes are uninhabitable can live temporarily in shelters set up on the main land. A shuttle service will take residents to their homes in Galveston Island during the day so they can make repairs and clean up.

Businesses are starting to reopen, cell phone service is improving and power’s coming back. But leaders warn that Galveston is still a dangerous place more than a week after Ike’s devastating assault. Fuel and other essentials remain scarce, and police will indefinitely enforce a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew once the island reopens Wednesday. And it could be weeks or more before basic services are restored in all areas. Still, the island is far from deserted. At least 15,000 people ignored mandatory evacuation orders before and after the storm, and many of them are still there. Wearing jeans and rubber boots, residents of the storm-shattered Texas coast clutched bibles and wept between hymns as they comforted each other at makeshift church services this weekend. About 50 people gathered on a basketball court outside the Oak Island Baptist Church about a mile from the tip of Trinity Bay. They sat on folding chairs or simply stood, forced outdoors by the one-inch layer of mud left inside the single-story red brick building by floodwaters that tossed pews like matchsticks.

Centerpoint Energy says it has restored power to about two-thirds of its 2.26 million customers in Hurricane Ike’s aftermath. The power provider is been aided by 8,000 mutual assistance linemen and tree trimmers from 31 states and Canada.

Entergy Texas expects to have electric service restored to its hardest-hit areas by Sunday. That would be a week sooner than previous forecasts. Joe Domino is president and chief executive officer of the Beaumont-based subsidiary of Entergy Corporation. Speaking on KLVI radio in Beaumont, Domino said he expected power to be back on today or tomorrow to customers able to receive it in Winnie and Anahuac. He added that service was expected to be restored to its service area west of the Trinity River by Wednesday and to areas east of the Trinity by Sunday. Not included in the forecasts are High Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, where the electric transmission infrastructure will have to be rebuilt. Entergy Texas serves most of southeast Texas east of the Trinity River, as well as an area from Navasota to Conroe and Cleveland. Domino says repairs after Hurricane Rita resulted in a system-wide rate increase to pay for fixes in the company’s grid.

TXU Energy is giving some slack to customers having to cope with the effects of Hurricane Ike. In hurricane-affected areas, the Dallas-based utility said it was extending payment due dates; allowing customers to pay 25 per cent down on their bills and pay out the balance over five months; extending special summer protection for low-income, ill, disabled and senior customers. That protection consists of a moratorium on service disconnections for delinquent payment and allowing more payment flexibility; waiving late fees; allowing new customers to pay deposits in two installments. Customers and prospective customers wanting to avail themselves of this flexibility must call 1-866-call-TXU. The program will be available at least through November 1st.

Hundreds of small oil and natural gas producers are picking up the pieces after back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. The recovery continues as the industry assesses damage from Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Of the 49 platforms destroyed last weekend by Ike, 44 produced less than 1,000 barrels of oil a day. That’s according to assessments from the Minerals Management Service. It’s just a sliver of the Gulf’s total daily offshore production of 1.3 million barrels. But combined, the nation’s roughly 5,000 independent operators account for about two-thirds of the oil and 82 per cent of the natural gas produced in the U.S. Independents concentrate solely on exploration and production, forgoing refining and marketing operations.

At the pump, retail gas prices could decrease as more Gulf Coast refineries ramp back up after Hurricane Ike. AAA says a gallon of regular dropped nearly two cents overnight to a new national average of nearly $3.74. Houston’s average is up 24 cents in the past week to $3.69.

American Red Cross officials say the Hurricane Ike evacuee count in their Texas shelters is down to about 7,600. That count had been as high as more than 40,000 in the days after the hurricane came ashore September 13th. But the relief agency said it isn’t sure how long Texas operations will last. Those efforts include food and help with basic needs for residents in some of the hardest-hit areas. Joe Becker is senior vice president of Disaster Services for the American Red Cross. He says the Hurricane Ike relief operation won’t be measured in weeks, but in months. He says fund-raising will be a “daunting task.” The combined costs of relief efforts for Ike and its Gulf Coast predecessor, Hurricane Gustav, could top $100 million. Becker says the agency has raised less than $20 million for 2008 hurricane relief.

All along the Texas coast, Latino immigrants are hauling away fallen trees, slashing through storm-tangled brush and patching punctured roofs. You’ll find them on working-class street corners, on ladders in front of Victorian houses, in the yards of ornate mansions. Crews of these men in dusty jeans, sturdy work boots and baseball caps are nearly as ubiquitous in the post-Hurricane Ike landscape as blue tarps on rooftops. They’re picked up off the street by homeowners looking for quick, cheap labor, and they’re helping rebuild the devastated cities of southeast Texas. Many of them are in the country illegally; others are legal residents in need of income after Hurricane Ike disrupted their regular jobs. Ike brought a wide swath of destruction, but also the prospect of more work, higher wages and a respite from the ever-present threat of deportation. Many day laborers say jobs in the Houston area had started to dry up recently, and police and immigration officials had been cracking down.

Governor Brad Henry has endorsed a plan by Texas oil tycoon and Oklahoma native T. Boone Pickens to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Henry signed the “Pickens Pledge,” a document urging Congress and the next president to enact an energy policy emphasizing renewable and alternative fuels. Pickens hopes to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil by focusing on wind power and natural gas. Henry says such steps are necessary to protect national security and enhance the country’s economic future. As a leading producer of both natural gas and wind power, Henry says Oklahoma is uniquely positioned to advance and benefit from the Pickens plan.

Iraq says it has signed a natural gas deal with Royal Dutch Shell that will establish a joint venture for energy
development in southern Iraq. The deal signed byIraqi oil minister Hussein Al-Shahristani and executives from the Anglo-Dutch company is the second between the government and a foreign energy company since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Oil ministry spokesman Assem Jihad says Shell and the state-run Iraqi South Oil Company will invest in natural gas in the province of Basra.

The mayor of London says he is looking into the possibility of building a new international airport on landfill in the Thames river estuary east of the capital. Mayor Boris Johnson’s feasibility study has sparked a flurry of new interest in the idea which has been around since the 1970s. The airport would be built on land filled in at shallow parts of the Thames estuary. It would be connected to London and the European continent with new high speed rail links. Airline officials would prefer the government approve plans to build a third runway at London’s congested Heathrow Airport. A decision on that proposal is expected by the end of the year.

Morgan Stanley says it signed a letter of intent to sell up to 20 per cent of its company to Japan’s largest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. If the deal is completed, the price would be based on Morgan Stanley’s book value after Mitsubishi completes due diligence. Mitsubishi will be able to add one member to Morgan Stanley’s board of directors. Late Sunday, Morgan Stanley said it received approval from the Federal Reserve to change to a bank holding company. Morgan Stanley Chief Executive John Mack says the deal would help expand the company’s footprint and help in its transition from one of wall street’s largest investment banks to a commercial bank.

Microsoft says its board approved a plan to buy back up to another $40 billion of its shares. The program expires on September 30th, 2013. The company says it has completed its previous $40 billion stock repurchase program.