Thursday PM April 23rd, 2009

Workers filing for unemployment benefits tops 6.1 million…Sales of older homes drop three per cent…Houston retail construction forecast to decline by 53 per cent; Houston's office leasing market shows 12.63 per cent vacancy rate…

New jobless claims rose more than expected last week, while the number of workers continuing to filing claims for unemployment benefits topped 6.1 million. Both figures are fresh evidence that layoffs persist and the job market remains weak. The Labor Department says initial claims for unemployment compensation rose to a seasonally adjusted 640,000, up from a revised 613,000 the previous week. That was slightly above analysts’ expectations of 635,000. The number of people claiming benefits for more than a week rose to 6.13 million, setting a record for the 12th straight week.

A real estate group says sales of previously occupied homes sank by an unexpectedly large amount from February to March, dashing hopes of a spring housing recovery. The National Association of Realtors said that home sales fell three per cent to an annual rate of 4.57 million last month, from a downwardly revised pace of 4.71 million units in February. Sales had been expected to fall to an annual pace of 4.7 million units, according to Thomson Reuters. The median sales price plunged to $175,200, down 12.4 per cent from $200,100 a year earlier, but up from $168,200 in February. While median sales prices typically rise slightly in early spring, the four per cent monthly increase was larger than expected.

President Barack Obama summoned leaders of the credit card industry to talk about fees and interest charges that critics call abusive. Aides say the president is responding to the anger of consumers over credit card fees they never expected and sudden hikes in interest rates on outstanding balances. Both houses of Congress are considering new rules to limit such practices and require greater disclosure. Officials say Obama doesn’t want regulations that could make it harder for banks to offer credit or that put credit out of reach for many borrowers.

Production could cease for about two months this summer on all but the most popular cars and trucks General Motors makes, but some analysts worry it could backfire. But some analysts and dealers fear GM’s action could actually scare away more potential car buyers. Sources say the closings will occur around the normal two-week shutdown in July when changes are made from one model year to the next. Laid off workers would still get most of their pay under their union contract. The shutdown could be catastrophic to many auto parts suppliers that already are near bankruptcy and couldn’t ship parts to GM, losing critical revenue. Auto industry consultant Jim Gillette says the situation is “as bad as it’s ever been.”

Retail construction in the Houston area in 2009 will decline by 53 per cent compared to last year, according to the president of Wulfe and Company. Ed Wulfe told attendees at the O’Connor & Associates retail forecast luncheon that 2.9 million square feet of new space will be built, compared to 6.2 million square feet last year. Wulfe says the lull will give some breathing room to absorb recently-closed store footage. He says it’s a chance to “rent what we already have.”

Houston’s office leasing market shows a 12.63 per cent vacancy rate, but shows positive absorption in Class A space, according to CB Richard Ellis. CRBE says Houston added 1.6 million square feet to its office inventory during the first quarter. Another four to six million square feet will be added to the Houston market in the second and third quarters.

Dallas-based Comerica Bank has reduced its payroll by 490 positions this quarter, after cutting 160 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2008. An unspecified number of those cuts were in Texas, including Houston. That’s a work force reduction of five per cent.

ConocoPhillips says its first-quarter profit tumbled 80 per cent from a year ago as sharply lower crude and natural gas prices walloped results at the nation’s third-largest oil company. The Houston-based company said that net income for the January-March amounted to $840 million. That compared with $4.14 billion a year earlier. Revenue fell 44 per cent to $30.7 billion from $54.9 billion a year ago. ConocoPhillips was the first of the major oil companies to report first-quarter results. Exxon Mobil, Chevron and others are set to release results next week.

Governor Rick Perry has renewed his call for the legislature to invest at least $60 million in the Texas Workforce Commission’s Skills Development Fund. The governor spoke at TWC’s Community College Conference in Austin. The development fund is managed by TWC, operating in partnership with public community and technical colleges to provide customized job training in targeted industries.

The Greater Houston Partnership’s Executive Women’s Partnership Committee is traveling in Turkey this week to promote business and trade between the two regions. The 13-woman delegation is visiting Istanbul and Izmir, meeting with Turkish representatives interested in doing business in the Houston region and in the state of Texas. Houston became a sister city with Istanbul in 1986. Nearly 275 Houston-area companies do business in Turkey, and 14 have subsidiaries there. Trade between Turkey and the Houston region totaled $1.93 billion last year—a 13 per cent increase over 2007.

A trade mission is also visiting Libya this week, sponsored by the Bilateral U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce. U.S.-Libyan trade has soared since the recent retraction of economic sanctions against Libya.

Gun stores in Texas and across the country are experiencing a high demand for guns and ammunition fueled by fears of stricter gun-control laws under President Barack Obama and crime related to the recession. The Houston Chronicle reports the Texas Department of Public Safety says the number of applications for concealed handguns jumped to almost 13,000 in February. That’s up from almost 8,000 in the same month last year. A Houston gun store managing partner, Rob Corson, says people are worried about their security. He says the day after the election, gun sales exploded and they ran out of everything. Nationally, the number of FBI background checks jumped a little more than 29 per cent in March, compared to the same month last year. The background checks are required whenever someone buys a firearm from a federally licensed retailer, Some gun control advocates think the run-up is due to unwarranted fears created by gun enthusiasts. But gun lobbyists worry about the Obama administration passing legislation that could make it harder to buy guns.

Congress’ watchdog agency says states need help covering the cost of overseeing their share of the massive federal stimulus program. A report released by the Government Accountability Office says federal officials should clarify what stimulus money states can use to manage and audit the billions they will receive over the next few years. States and local governments will be responsible for handling more than a third of President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus program. The GAO echoes concerns raised by state and local leaders who say they don’t have the resources to handle the huge infusion of cash. A leading Senate Democrat says he agrees that states need help paying for the added costs of managing their stimulus money. Senator Joseph Lieberman says states should be able to tap some of the recovery money for that.

With fewer jobs available — and credit tightening up — Americans aren’t as mobile as they used to be. According to new census data, the number of Americans who moved last year was down sharply. The government says about 11.9 per cent of the nation’s population moved to a new home. That’s the lowest percentage in 60 years. It’s down from 13.2 per cent the previous year. For decades, the levels had been declining. But the rate had generally leveled off at around 13 to 14 per cent before last year’s drop. The northeast continued to lose the most residents last year, but at a slower pace. The south showed a net gain of people moving in. There were declines in the West and Midwest. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution says the drop is due partly to the “drying up of jobs, particularly in hot housing markets.”

MBA students from Rice University are presenting business plans for specific health products targeted for use in the developing world at a Rice event at Cohen House this evening. A student team flew to Kigali for five days over spring break to help local entrepreneurs launch businesses using life-saving bio-medical products like the incubator. Rice students hope to introduce a sustainable business model that will allow Rwanda to move away from receiving aid to using business as one means of building a sustainable economy.

The chief executive of Craigslist has a message for people who use the popular internet advertising site to commit crimes: you’re going to get caught. The San Francisco-based company has been in the headlines again in the wake of high-profile violent crimes in Minnesota and Boston in which the victims were allegedly found through ads on Craigslist. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster says the site is “extremely unsafe” for criminals because using it creates an electronic trail. Buckmaster says users should take precautions when meeting someone found through an online ad. He suggests meeting in a public place with other people around, bringing a friend, and letting someone know where you’re going and when you’re returning.

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