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Friday PM April 17th, 2009

Unemployment inches up statewide; Houston jobless rate remains 6.5 percent…Houston office market reaches highest level of vacancies since late 2006…Second Gulf Coast Green Symposium and Expo continues through weekend at Reliant Park…

The Texas Workforce Commission says statewide unemployment edged up to 6.7 percent in March as the state shed 47,100 nonagricultural jobs. While the Rio Grande Valley showed slight improvement from a month earlier, it continued to the lead the state with the highest unemployment rates. Midland delivered the lowest unemployment rate at 4.3 percent. Houston’s numbers were stable, according to the Texas Workforce Commission—level at 6.5 percent without jobs. The ten-county Houston metropolitan area sustained a net loss of 14,400 jobs, or 0.6 percent. In February the state unemployment rate was 6.6 percent and in March 2008 it was 4.3 percent. The state still bested the nation as a whole where unemployment rose to nine percent in March.

The Houston office market has reached a 14.7 percent vacancy level in the first quarter—the highest level since the end of 2006, according to Grubb & Ellis. Their latest Office Market Trends report says Houston had nearly 919,000 square feet of negative absorption, and vacancy rates are expected to continue rising. Sublease space put back onto the market by companies no longer needing it rose to nearly 3.5 million square feet. Some 5.3 million square feet of office space is currently under construction in the Houston area.

Calpine has moved its corporate headquarters to Houston. The company has been claiming dual headquarters in San Jose, California and Houston. Calpine has 37 power plants in California generating 5,200 megawatts of power. Texas operations generate 7,500 megawatts. Calpine emerged from bankruptcy in 2008.

A Zogby interactive survey finds the economic opinions of Americans moving slowing in a positive direction, in terms of their personal finances. And the poll found President Barack Obama’s positive job performance ratings are again over 50 percent, after dipping to just below that mark in a similar poll on March 23rd. Responses are partisan, with only 14 percent of Republicans rating his performance positively, compared to 88 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Independents.

The head of the International Money Fund believes the global economic meltdown may be starting to wind down, and recovery could emerge in 2010. But Dominique Strauss-Kahn says countries must act together and immediately adopt policies aimed at ending the recession. Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister in France, says the impressive economic gains many countries have made during the past decade are threatened. He says there is a risk that low income countries could be cast back into poverty and that the human consequences “could be absolutely devastating.” Strauss-Kahn said the IMF, a 185-nation Washington-based lending institution, must now live up to the trust placed in it by the international community.

General Motors’ chief says it’s “probable” the struggling automaker will file for bankruptcy. In a conference call with reporters, CEO Fritz Henderson said that’s not the company’s preferred option. But he says the restructuring goals that GM must meet to get more government loans are forcing the issue. Those include cutting labor costs and debt by June 1st. Henderson says GM is working “several tracks,” one of which involves bankruptcy. A decision would be made with the Treasury Department and GM’s board of directors. Should that happen, Henderson says speed will be important to the company’s survival. He says GM would try to reach agreements with its creditors and the autoworkers’ union before filing, but adds that the current “environment is not helpful to us.” Henderson notes that GM would keep four core brands under its restructuring plan, and two of those—GMC and Buick—have been highly profitable, as has its ACDelco parts division.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says financial innovation has fallen on hard times because of the economic crisis. In remarks prepared for a Fed Community Affairs Research Conference, Bernanke says new products like subprime mortgages and structured investment vehicles became symbols of the financial crisis. But he says innovation is needed to make the banking system more efficient and inclusive. Bernanke says the government’s challenge is to come up with regulations that will protect consumers without stifling innovation.

The Treasury Department is defending the viability of its $1 trillion plan to get soured mortgage investments off of banks’ books. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said the company won’t participate in the treasury’s public-private investment program because it doesn’t need to. Some analysts say that could spell trouble for treasury’s program, which is aimed at toxic assets weighing on banks’ balance sheets and preventing them from resuming more normal lending. The analysts say Dimon’s comments could lead to other large banks remaining on the sidelines. Treasury is playing down the concerns. Spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter says the department is confident there will be significant interest from other banks who do want to participate and that the program will be launched “as soon as possible.”

The Texas House today began working on the next two-year state budget. Lawmakers hunkered down on the $178 billion plan for debate and consideration that was expected to spill into the weekend. The two-year House budget proposal includes spending of $11 billion in federal stimulus funds for 2010-2011. Lawmakers are combing through a stack of about 500 proposed amendments. Texas Senators today passed a measure to use more financial incentives to lure movie and television producers back to the state. The proposal now heads to Governor Rick Perry. The governor’s Texas Film Commission currently can award grants for the lesser of five percent of a production’s in-state spending or a specified amount—depending on the project. The new legislation would give the film office power to establish a maximum amount of a grant. It also would change some qualifications that a production company would have to meet.

The Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood studios have reached a tentative deal on movie and prime-time TV show productions. The previous contract had expired last June. The announcement came a day before the guild’s board was scheduled to meet. The guild said it will recommend approval by the board and then ratification by its members. Both sides said the details of the deal will not be disclosed before the guild’s board reviews it over the weekend.

The second Gulf Coast Green Symposium and Expo continues into the weekend at Reliant Park. The event began this week with a two-day professional symposium, but it opens to the public on Saturday and Sunday. The event looks at green building, energy efficiency, renewable energy and alternative transportation. Last year’s event attracted 10,000 consumers.

A project led by the Houston Advanced Research Center is receiving $2.2 million from Sugar Land-based Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America to help fund its Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program. Project members will introduce low-impact technologies that industry can use to increase production in environmentally sensitive areas. Light weight drilling rigs with reduced emission engine packages and on-site waste management systems are part of the research.

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has opened a clinic in Katy. The new facility on Park Grove Drive will offer pre-natal and pediatric services.

A Texas company is signaling its intent to turn a rural county near New Mexico into the home of the only dump in the United States that disposes of all classes of low-level radioactive waste from around the country. South Carolina shut its doors to nearly all the nation’s low-level radioactive waste in July, leaving 36 states with no place to dispose of certain waste from nuclear power plants, hospitals and universities. Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists received a license from state regulators earlier this year to begin accepting commercial waste from Texas and New Hampshire. But the company wrote in an April 6th letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it wants to dispose of waste from other states too.

A Swedish court has convicted four men linked to the popular pirate bay file-sharing site of breaking Sweden’s copyright law. The Stockholm district court sentenced Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij, and Carl Lundstrom to one year each in prison. They were also ordered to pay damages of 30 million kronor ($3.6 million) to a series of entertainment companies, including Warner Brothers, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI and Columbia Pictures. The Pirate Bay provides a forum for its estimated 22 million users to freely download music, movies and computer games through so-called torrent files. The site has become the entertainment industry’s enemy number one after successful court actions against file-swapping sites such as Grokster and Kazaa.

YouTube says it is partnering with major studios to stream full-length movies and TV shows on its site for free. The Web site owned by Google says it is partnering on the initiative with Sony Pictures, CBS, MGM, Lionsgate, Starz and the BBC. Advertising revenue will be shared with the content providers. YouTube also says it will more broadly use video ads that play mid-stream in breaks on longer content. The movies and TV shows are currently limited to U.S. users.

The Hermann Park Conservancy and Houston Parks and Recreation Department is cutting the ribbon on an $11 million renovation of Lake Plaza near the Houston Zoo on Saturday. The project includes a newly constructed Kinder Station for the train, the Tiffany & Company Foundation Bridge, Little Bigs Café and dining terrace, public restrooms, a gift shop, a boathouse and a volunteer and maintenance building.

Consumer electronics recycling drive is set for Saturday at Katy Mills Mall. Consumers are urged to bring in their old television sets, computer monitors and computer electronics between 9 and 3 p.m. The event is a collaboration of waste recycler ECO International, Samsung Recycling Direct, Hewlett-Packard and Manufacturers Recycling Management.

Baker Hughes in Houston reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. fell by 30 this week—to hit 975. One year ago the rig count stood at 1,827. Texas is down ten rigs this week. The U.S. count is down by more than half since the end of August as weak energy demand has hampered oilfield activity. Oil prices peaked at almost $150 a barrel last July.

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