Tuesday PM February 3rd, 2009

Union reaches tentative "pattern" agreement with oil industry…Pending U.S. home sales rebounding with deeply-discounted properties…Rice professor wins Welch Foundation award for statistical models of proteins…

The union has reached a tentative agreement with the oil industry on new contract standards. Shell is the lead company for the oil industry contract negotiations, and the agreement is being forwarded to all Shell/Motiva local union bargaining tables. Other oil company local union bargaining sessions will then individually decide whether to ratify. The tentative agreement reached becomes the minimum standard of wages, benefits and working conditions for all union negotiations. The union’s Gary Beevers says they opted to reach a tentative agreement on economic issues and withdraw bargaining demands, in light of the severe economic crisis, and avoid a strike that could cause a spike in gas and diesel prices. Some 30,000 oil workers in production, refining, marketing, transportation, pipeline and petrochemical sectors are represented by the United Steelworkers.

The National Association of Realtors says pending U.S. home sales rebounded in December, as buyers snapped up properties at deep discounts, especially in the South and Midwest. The trade group said its seasonally adjusted index of pending sales for pre-owned homes for December rose 6.3 per cent to 87.7 from an upwardly revised November reading of 82.5. That’s better than the 82.3 reading economists expected, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters. The reading also was up 2.1 per cent from December 2007. The index tracks signed contracts to purchase existing homes. Typically there is a one- to two-month lag between a contract and a done deal. Home sales that were pending in December are likely to be completed in the coming weeks.

The state has accrued $134 million in unpaid bills from emergency response to Hurricane Ike—and vendors want their money. Jack Colley, the state’s director of Emergency Management, told the Senate Finance Committee that he’s had to tell bill collectors they must wait for the bureaucratic process. Senator Steve Ogden, chairman of the committee, said the state should already have the authority to pay the bills from the deadly September 13th storm. “We are not broke; why aren’t we paying these bills?” Ogden asked. “That’s a good question,” Colley responded, deferring to the office of Governor Rick Perry. The governor’s office did not immediately return a call from the Associated Press.

Paying for recovery from damages inflicted by Hurricane Rita is among Governor Rick Perry’s emergency items for the legislative session. Another item Perry designated as an emergency is reforming the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. Perry’s emergency designation allows lawmakers to begin considering the issue in the first 30 days of the legislative session, which began January 13th.

Macy’s is merging its four headquarters offices into one centralized New York location, while establishing eight regional offices. One will be in Houston. All stores in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana will report to a Houston office in their downtown store. Eleven stores nationwide are slated to close, but none in Texas. The cuts will include some unfilled jobs, but new positions are being created through May by the company’s organizational changes. There are 14 Houston-area Macy’s outlets, and some 80 local positions could be cut with this week’s announced layoff of 7,000 positions nationwide, or about four per cent of its work force. Three Houston-area Macy’s stores remain closed because of damage caused by Hurricane Ike.

Waste Management is consolidating its market area management structure, eliminating some positions. Details are forthcoming when its 2008 earnings are announced on February 12th. There are about 900 employees in the Houston corporate office.

Meridian Resource is planning some cost-cutting measures, including a work force reduction, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston-based oil and gas firm is cutting some development and exploration projects.

UBS has hired a team of five from Morgan Stanley in Houston, according to the Houston Chronicle. UBS hired more than 200 brokers in the U.S. during the fourth quarter.

A Rice University professor has won the Welch Foundation’s 2009 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research for innovative contributions to the molecular biophysics of protein dynamics. Cecilia Clementi’s statistical models of proteins could lead to breakthroughs in biomedicine.

image of a speaker, click here for audio“I’m a theorist, and I develop methods for understanding and predicting the behavior of large molecular systems like proteins. I don’t say that I work directly on the cure of diseases, but I work upstream. I work on understanding and creating the tools that hopefully will lead us to cure diseases.”

Clementi is the second Rice University professor from the research team to receive the $100,000 prize. Colleague Andrew Barron was the first-ever recipient of the award in 2002.

The Treasury Department says it has provided $1.15 billion to 42 banks in new payments from the government’s $700 billion financial rescue fund. The department says the latest capital infusions went to banks in 25 states, including the first awards in Nebraska. The new distributions were made Friday and mark the second round of payments from the bailout fund since President Barack Obama took office. The latest payments mean a total of 359 financial institutions in 45 states and Puerto Rico have received over $195 billion in support.

The Federal Reserve is extending the life of key programs intended to relieve the credit and financial problems that have deepened the recession. The Fed says it will keep these programs, which had been slated to expire on April 30th, running through the end of October. The central bank says it is taking the action “in light of continuing substantial strains in many financial markets.” The programs being extended include those that: provide emergency loans to investment firms; buy mounds of companies’ short-term debt, known as “commercial paper;” bolster the mutual fund industry; and allow investment firms to temporarily swap risky securities for super-safe treasury securities. The Fed also has extended credit lines with other major central banks to supply them with dollars.

A federal appeals court panel has rejected airlines arguments that the government overcharged them by about $98 million a year for security after the 2001 terror attacks. The ruling came from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Washington. It holds that the Transportation Security Administration made some mistakes in its calculations but generally followed a 2004 law in deciding how much to charge airlines. Before the 2001 terror attacks, airlines paid for the cost of screening passengers and bags themselves. That duty was taken over by TSA, which levies fees on passengers and airlines to cover its costs. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines led a group of 22 airlines that sued the TSA, saying the airline fee was arbitrary and flawed. A Southwest spokesman says the airline’s lawyers were still reviewing the decision and have no immediate comment.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s company has bought an additional 2.3 million shares of Burlington Northern Santa Fe stock. That increases its stake to more than 76 million shares. Berkshire Hathaway controls more than 20 per cent of the nation’s second-largest railroad. Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Berkshire completed its latest purchases on Friday. Berkshire’s BNSF stock is held by National Indemnity co., one of Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries. Berkshire owns insurance, furniture and jewelry companies, utilities and a corporate jet firm, and has major stock investments. BNSF is based in Fort Worth.

MidSouth Bancorp is conducting seminars for small business customers and consumers to say there’s money to lend, despite the headlines related to the nation’s large investment banks. Sessions are set for tonight at six at MidSouth’s Conroe branch and tomorrow evening at six at the community bank’s West Sam Houston Parkway North branch.


Marathon Oil says it swung to a fourth-quarter loss of $41 million from a year ago as the company took a large non-cash impairment of goodwill. Lower crude prices also hurt results. Marathon also says because of the economic climate, it will not split in two as it had planned. Marathon had net income of $688 million in the prior-year period. Adjusted for one-time items, fourth-quarter earnings totaled $1.03 billion compared with $500 million in the fourth quarter of 2007.

The homebuilder D.R. Horton says its fiscal first-quarter loss narrowed as it cut costs to cope with the worsening housing market slump. The nation’s largest homebuilder said it lost $62.6 million for the quarter ended December 31st. That compares with a loss of $128.8 million a year earlier. The Fort Worth-based company says homebuilding revenue fell 47.3 per cent to $900.3 million from $1.71 billion. Thomson Reuters says analysts, on average, predicted revenue of $918.2 million. D.R. Horton’s results include $56.2 million in charges and other write-offs, compared with $245.5 million in the period last year.

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