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Wednesday PM March 4th, 2009

Homeowners set to enroll for $75 billion loan modification program…Houston Chronicle to reduce staff by ten per cent…Equistar Chemicals to lay off 229 employees…


The Obama administration has launched its new program designed to help up to nine million borrowers stay in their homes. It provides refinanced mortgages or loans with lower monthly payments. The key step involves the Treasury Department’s release of detailed guidelines designed to let the lending industry know how to enroll borrowers in the program. It was announced last month. The “making home affordable” initiative requires borrowers to provide their most recent tax return and two pay stubs, as well as an “affidavit of financial hardship” to qualify for the $75 billion loan modification program. It runs through 2012. Borrowers are only allowed to have their loans modified once, and the program only applies for loans made on January 1st, 2009 or earlier. Up to four million borrowers are expected to qualify. Mortgages for single-family properties that are worth more than $729,750 are excluded. Separately, up to five million borrowers who have mortgages held by government controlled mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be eligible to refinance through June 2010.

President Barack Obama has approved an order to overhaul the way the U.S. government awards contracts for work to be done by the private sector. Obama joined Republican Senator John McCain, his presidential campaign rival, and other Congressional figures to announce an executive memorandum that commits his administration to a new set of marching orders for awarding contracts. Obama said “the days of giving government contractors a blank check are over” and said changes could save up to $40 billion a year. One area in particular that is targeted is no-bid contracts, which the administration is seeking to change so that there will be more competition for government-paid work. Obama said that “even if these were the best of times, budget reform would be overdue in Washington.”

The Houston Chronicle plans a reorganization over the next 60 days that includes a work force reduction of at least ten per cent, according to the Houston Business Journal. That follows a round of layoffs six months ago. The HBJ quotes a February 13th memo to employees from Chronicle Publisher and President Jack Sweeney. The business and city and state sections are being rolled into one section on Mondays and Tuesdays. The paper has also introduced a new tabloid classified advertising section called Kaango on Thursdays.

Equistar Chemicals is laying off about 229 employees at its Chocolate Bayou facility in Alvin beginning April 30th, according to information supplied to the Texas Workforce Commission. About 31 employees will remain at the idled olefin plant to manage the site. Equistar and Lyondell Chemical filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on January 6th.

Producers, actors and others who make movies and television shows are launching a big push at the Texas capitol for the state to improve incentives for the entertainment industry. Governor Rick Perry joined hundreds from the industry for an early morning rally. He says too many movie productions have moved to other states like New Mexico, Louisiana and Michigan and that Texas wants their business back. Perry is proposing $60 million in incentives in the coming two-year state budget as part of his job creation efforts. Bills filed by Republican Senator Bob Deuell and Democratic Representative Dawnna Dukes would allow the state to be more competitive with what’s happening in the industry nationally. The legislation would also give a boost to video game creators.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas has told Congress that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster assistance protocols should be revamped so areas suffering as a result of Hurricane Ike can get the aid they need faster. Thomas testified before a House Homeland Security subcommittee about the uphill battle Galveston is waging to receive aid. She told Congress that applications for aid had accumulated at FEMA without action and that the agency had demanded documents to support claims from people who had lost everything. Thomas asked Congress to cut red tape and speed federal assistance to thousands of people who lost their homes to Hurricane Ike nearly six months ago. The Houston Chronicle reports the chairman of the subcommittee called for a report within 30 days. And the chair of the Homeland Security Committee, Mississippi Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson, said he was convinced “we can improve accountability and streamline the red tape.”

Mayors from around the world, including Houston’s Mayor Bill White, are taking part in Rice University’s biennial De Lange Conference this week, discussing solutions to urban problems. White is joined by Mustafa Kamal, mayor of Karachi, Pakistan; Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia; and Shuki Forer, mayor of Rehovot, Israel. Experts are debating globalization, governing, engineering, education, architecture, transportation, planning, technology, climate change and the role of faith communities.

A new survey by the Federal Reserve says the economy has gotten even weaker in the last two months, and the outlook for a quick recovery is bleak. The Fed’s survey concludes: “national economic conditions deteriorated further…with only a few sectors such as basic food production and pharmaceuticals appearing to be exceptions.” Looking ahead, business people surveyed by the Fed held out little hope for a quick economic turnaround. The survey summarizes information from businesses and others supplied to the Fed’s 12 regional banks. The information was collected on or before February 23rd.

A gauge of the nation’s services sector contracted in February for the fifth straight month. The Institute for Supply Management says that its services index fell to 41.6 last month from 42.9 in January. The February reading was slightly above economists’ expectations. Any reading below 50 indicates contraction. The index has fallen steadily since August as the economy deteriorated. About three-quarters of Americans work in service-providing industries, such as hotels, retail, education, health care and financial institutions. Only one category–arts, entertainment and recreation—reported growth in February, according to the survey. Fourteen others registered contraction.

Fedex Office will provide free resume printing services to its customers on March 10th—as more people are out of work. Fedex President Brian Philips says the Dallas-based subsidiary of Memphis-based Fedex, formerly known as Fedex Kinko’s, wants to help people struggling in a failing economy. More than 1,600 locations nationwide will print up to 25 back and white copies of each customer’s resume free of charge. The orders must be placed and picked up in-store.

Postal Service officials are hosting events in Houston celebrating National Consumer Protection Week. They’ve been distributing information and brochures warning against identity theft. They’re at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo at Reliant Center tomorrow from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and they’ll be at The Woodlands Station in Spring on Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. National consumer Protection Week is a national program led by the Federal Trade Commission to draw attention to issues and recommendations that help customers become smarter consumers.

You already know you shouldn’t believe everything you read online, but now here’s something else to watch out for. The government says there are scams operating on the Web and through e-mail, offering to help consumers qualify for a payment from President Obama’s economic stimulus package. The consumers are then asked to provide a little information, or a small payment. The scammers often use the information to drain the consumer’s bank account, or to commit identity theft. Some emails offer links, supposedly to information on how to qualify. By clicking on the links, consumers have downloaded spyware. The Federal Trade Commission says consumers who’ve already given up credit card information as part of these scams should check their bills for unauthorized charges.

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