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Monday PM January 12th, 2009

Landry's Restaurants drops attempt to take the company private…International Trade and Transportation meeting looks at Houston as commerce hub…Manslaughter trial of Continental Airlines over 2000 crash of Concorde jet to begin outside Paris next year…


Landry’s Restaurants dropped a planned deal under which CEO Tilman Fertitta would have taken the company private. But the Houston-based company says it will refinance about $400 million in senior debt. The going-private deal was scuttled because of a conflict with the Securities and Exchange Commission and its lenders. The dispute involved disclosing terms that the lenders insisted were confidential. Landry’s has retained an alternative financing agreement reached with the same lenders that it expects to close by the end of February. Fertitta holds 39 per cent of the company. Landry’s owns Rainforest Café, Saltgrass Steak House, Landry’s Seafood House, Charley’s Crab, the Chart House and the Signature Group of Restaurants. The company also owns the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nevada.

Representatives from the Houston Airport System and air carriers, the Port of Houston and shippers, railroads, truck lines and politicians are discussing the globalization and demographics that are making the Texas Gulf Coast the gateway to North America. The first annual Harris County International Trade and Transportation Conference was organized by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. Some of the focus is on the economic partnership between the U.S. and Mexico.

image of speaker, click here for audio“Tomorrow’s sessions will be largely focused on Mexico, trying to say, ‘look, this is a partnership. How do we both benefit from enhancing that partnership? What do we need to do?’ There was just a discussion about using short-sea shipping to move goods from northern Mexico into Houston, for example. We’re going to talk a bout how do you make the rail connections better, how do you make the truck connections better. All of those things are important, not only to the Mexican economy, but to our economy.”

The conference was originally planned for September, but was postponed in response to Hurricane Ike.

State Comptroller Susan Combs says Texas revenue will drop about $9 billion in the next two-year spending cycle. The grim news came the day before lawmakers convene in Austin for this year’s legislative session. The revenue estimate covers the 2010-2011 fiscal years and is based mostly on sales tax forecasts. There was one bright spot: Combs says the figure does not include the $6.7 billion in the state’s “rainy day fund.” That’s the most money ever in that fund.

When lawmakers convene tomorrow they’ll face the financial devastation left by Hurricane Ike. The storm walloped Galveston and nearby counties on September 13th. Legislators are expected to look at restructuring the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. That fills the gap left by private insurers who stopped issuing policies in some coastal counties. Lawmakers will also consider whether to put money into a state disaster fund that Galveston officials found out–the hard way–was empty. Representative Craig Eiland of Galveston says the legislature was wise in setting up the disaster fund, but quote: “we were cheap in not funding it.” House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum says overall Ike costs could hit state government with a bill as high as $8 billion. Total Hurricane Ike costs are estimated to top $15 billion, but the state expects the federal government to cover most of that.

About 2,000 people have applied for building permits on Bolivar Peninsula since Hurricane Ike devastated the area. Galveston County Commissioner Patrick Doyle also says two “cornerstones” of the community, Texas First Bank and Gulf Coast market, are expected to reopen next month. Doyle told the Galveston County Daily News that the area will not be viable until the bank and grocery store reopen. About 5,900 structures were damaged, including 3,600 swept off their foundations, as Ike slammed ashore on September 13th.

French prosecutors say the manslaughter trial of Continental Airlines and five people over the 2000 crash of a Concorde jet that killed 113 people will begin outside Paris next year. They said the trial is set to open February 2, 2010, in the Paris suburb of Pontoise, and should last until the following May. The Air France Concorde crashed into a hotel after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle Airport in July 2000, killing all 109 people on Board–mostly German tourists–and four on the ground. Investigators say the crash was caused in part by a titanium strip from a Continental DC-10 that was on the runway when the Concorde took off. Employees of Continental, the Concorde’s maker and France’s Civilian Aviation Authority are to stand trial.

Houston City Controller Annise Parker says the war on payday loan outlets siphoning $70 million out of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods has begun. The Bank on Houston marketing campaign has been launched to help residents open starter bank accounts. The campaign hopes to open at least 10,000 new accounts this year and also increase accessibility to quality money management education. A study by Houston’s Planning Department found that seven of ten Hurricane Katrina evacuees who came to Houston did not have bank accounts.

The Federal Trade Commission is asking a federal judge to halt the integration of Wild Oats and Whole Foods Market as part of an ongoing legal battle over the 2007 deal that combined the two natural grocery chains. The FTC want a U.S. District Court judge to force Whole Foods to stop integration activities while one of several disputes over its acquisition of Wild Oats is handled in court. If the judge finds the FTC has a strong enough case, the regulators say they would completely unwind the companies. Whole Foods officials vehemently opposed the FTC’s request and say the process of integrating Wild Oats is done.

A deal to combine the brokerages of Citigroup and Morgan Stanley may be just days away. A person close to the negotiations says Morgan Stanley is likely to pay Citigroup between $2 billion and $3 billion for a 51 per cent stake in the brokerage Smith Barney. Morgan Stanley would then have the option to buy Smith Barney over the next three to five years. The deal would give Citi more cash, and Morgan Stanley more manpower.

Falling crude demand in the world’s largest consuming nation is blamed for driving oil prices to a fresh low for the year. Light, sweet crude for February delivery fell seven per cent to $37.96 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. After rising for ten straight days, the price of gas at the pump fell overnight. The Department of Energy last week reported bigger than expected inventories of oil, natural gas and gasoline, which suggested demand for energy continues to erode.

The White House says President George W. Bush has agreed to ask Congress to release the remaining $350 billion intended to help the nation deal with its financial crisis. White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush is acting on a request of President-elect Barack Obama. She said the Bush White House will continue working with Obama’s transition team and with Congress on how best to proceed on the release of the money. The idea is to make the money available to the new administration shortly after Obama takes office January 20th. The unpopular bailout has featured unconditional infusions of money into financial institutions that have done little to account for it. Obama and his economic team have signaled that he was eager to use the remaining money to help reduce the number of mortgage foreclosures and that he wanted to place greater restrictions on institutions that receive the funds. The move comes as Democrats in the House of Representatives prepare to act on legislation that has some of the same aims. Obama says he plans to make a fundamental change in the way the financial rescue fund is spent. Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Mexico’s president, Obama said some of the money should be spent on helping people avoid foreclosure and some should help small businesses. He also said he’s been disappointed by the “lack of clarity” in how the first half has been spent.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd is setting out the conditions necessary for Congress to approve spending the second $350 billion of a roughly $700 billion federal rescue plan. Dodd says that in order to win authorization of such additional spending, the government will have to do a much better job of accounting to the taxpayers for where money already spent has gone. Dodd said he was encouraged by assurances he heard about help for people facing home foreclosure during a meeting with former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a key Obama economic adviser. Dodd told CBS’s “The Early Show” that “I feel better this morning” about prospects for approval.

When it comes to the economy, President George W. Bush is making no apologies. The president says he’s taken “extraordinary measures” to deal with frozen credit markets, which he says is the first step toward recovery. He says a lot of the decisions he’s made have been “very aggressive” ones, aimed at keeping the financial system from “cratering.” And he says lending is “beginning to pick up.” Bush also says he will always defend his position that tax cuts are the “right course of action.” Bush admits tossing aside some of his free-market principles after being told that the economy faced a threat that could be worse than the great depression. Looking back on his administration’s record on the economy, Bush said he inherited a recession and left amid one, but that his term in office also included 52 straight months of job growth.

Federal Reserve Governor Randall Kroszner says he will leave later this month, giving President-elect Barack Obama an opportunity to put his stamp on the central bank. After nearly three years at the Fed, Kroszner says he will step down on January 21st. That’s a week before the Fed’s next regularly scheduled meeting. Kroszner will return to academia as a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. His departure from the central bank was expected. Kroszner has served at the Fed during a time of great financial and economic turbulence. The convergence of housing, credit and financial debacles has created the worst crisis to hit the country since the 1930s.

A Brazilian official says British Gas will invest $4 billion in the next three years in the nation’s offshore oil fields. The Economic Development Minister for Rio de Janeiro state says in an e-mailed statement the investment will be used in the massive Tupi Fields off Brazil’s southeast coast. Minister Julio Bueno says the investment was announced by British Gas executives during a meeting with Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sergio Cabral. British Gas is part of a consortium to develop part of the offshore finds, which could hold up to 80 billion barrels of oil. The other partners in the blocs where the investment will take place are Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras and Portuguese energy company Galp. Neither Petrobras nor Galp would immediately comment.

Dell says it is settling a class-action lawsuit that claimed the company made misleading financing and service offers to PC buyers. Dell will pay $3.85 million to 45 states participating in the settlement. The lawsuit claimed Dell offered customers zero-per cent financing but later applied a high interest rate without their knowledge. The lawsuit also claimed problems with Dell’s warranty service and rebate programs.

Three companies that make sulfuric acid have agreed to spend at least $12 million on air pollution controls at plants in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Ohio, Wyoming and Texas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department announced the plan by Chemtrade Logistics, Chemtrade Refinery Services and Marsulex. The companies will also pay a civil penalty of $700,000 under the Clean Air Act settlement. The government had accused Chemtrade and Marsulex of modifying their plants which increased the amount of sulfur dioxide released. The government says the companies didn’t obtain pre-construction permits or install pollution control equipment that’s required before making changes that significantly increase pollution.

Nineteen conventions, trade shows and other events have been booked by the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau for February. More than 33,013 attendees will spend an estimated $32,1 million in Houston during the month. The 2009 North American Prospect Expo from the American Association of Professional Landmen takes place February 5th and 6th at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Women of Faith’s Revolve Tour is set for February 13th and 14th at the Toyota Center. And the Turbomachinery Laboratory’s International Pump Users Symposium and Short Courses will be held February 23rd through the 26th at the Brown Convention Center.

Departing Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott is urging retailers to work with government leaders to tackle the big economic challenges facing the country. That includes sustainability, health care and energy independence. Scott told a gathering of industry executives on that retailers can make a special contribution to helping solve the economic woes because they are close to the consumer. He said businesses cannot afford to wait. He also said he is confident that the government stimulus program will help the economy, but does not expect improvement right away. He thinks the fundamental changes in consumer behavior will continue. Scott is stepping down as chief executive of Wal-Mart stores on February 1st.

Even in the middle of the school year, parents are pulling their kids out of private schools as family budgets get hammered by the ever-deepening recession. The federal government says private enrollment has dropped by 120,000 students in the current school year, and that’s just a preliminary number. Given total private school enrollment of about six million, that’s about two per cent of the student population. And more of the parents sticking with private schools are asking for financial aid, straining school endowments that have withered along with the stock market. However, the National Association of Independent Schools insists overall enrollment at private schools has held steady.