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Tuesday PM May 12th, 2009

Federal grand jury indicts chief investment officer for Stanford Financial Group…Home prices fall in nine out of ten U.S. cities: Houston's median price down four per cent compared to same time last year…AAA expects Americans will travel slightly more during Memorial Day holiday compared with last year…


A federal grand jury in Houston has indicted the chief investment officer for Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford’s companies, alleging she obstructed the government’s investigation in a fraud case. Laura Pendergest-Holt was indicted on one count of conspiring to obstruct a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the Stanford Financial Group and a second count of obstructing the investigation. Each count carries up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The SEC has accused Stanford and his top executives of conducting an $8 billion fraud by advising clients to buy certificates of deposit at the Antigua-based Stanford International Bank. The federal court in Houston will be issuing an order summoning Pendergest-Holt to appear in the near future for arraignment.

A real estate group says home prices fell in nearly nine out of every ten cities in the first quarter of this year as first-time buyers looking for bargains dominated the market. The National Association of Realtors says median sales prices of existing homes declined in 134 out of 152 metropolitan areas compared with the same period a year ago. It was the smallest drop since year-to-year price differentials turned negative in October. Prices rose in the other 18 cities. Nationwide, sales of foreclosures and other distressed properties made up about half of the market. The median price of Houston-area homes was $145,000 in March–down four per cent from the same time the year before. Home sales fell in all but six states–Nevada, California, Arizona, Florida, Virginia and Minnesota–where buyers have been able to snap up foreclosures at a deep discount. The biggest price gain, of more than 21 per cent, was in the Cumberland, Maryland, market. Nationwide, the median sales price was $169,900–down 13.8 per cent from a year ago.

Some workers at a Port Arthur refinery had to be transported to a hospital today after getting sick. Officials are trying to determine what caused the problem at the Total unit. Plant spokeswoman Pat Avery earlier told KDFM-TV that three workers were transported, for treatment of shortness of breath. She later said the exact number has yet to be determined. Avery says an investigative team was inspecting the plant to determine if a chemical leak might be responsible. So far no leak has been found.

Some ExxonMobil shareholders are appealing to mutual fund investors to help change the oil giant’s approach to environmental issues and corporate governance. Their Web site allows investors to urge their mutual funds to support shareholder resolutions on climate change, renewable energy and an independent chairman. Irving-based ExxonMobil’s annual meeting is May 27th in Dallas. Shareholder proposals asking ExxonMobil for such things as specific greenhouse gas reduction goals and larger investments in renewable energy have become commonplace. ExxonMobil says its response to all shareholder proposals can be found in its proxy, filed April 13th with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Egypt’s oil minister is warning that delaying investments in the energy sector because of the global financial crisis could drive oil prices to over $200 per barrel in the next few years. Sameh Fahmy told oil executives at a gas conference that last year’s price spike to nearly $150 will be quickly eclipsed if new supplies are not brought on line. He says crude could go “over $200 (per barrel) in a period of two or three years if we don’t all act quickly now.” Oil officials and executives have repeatedly warned about another price spike as falling investments hamper efforts to tap new supply to meet a rebound in demand once the world economy picks up again.

Iraq’s oil minister says the Kurds’ controversial oil deals with western companies are still considered “illegal and illegitimate.” But Hussain al-Shahristani told state television that oil extracted by these companies will be collected and marketed by his ministry and all revenues will be sent into the federal accounts. Iraq’s central government on Sunday approved Kurdish plans to export crude from two oil fields through the national pipeline to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Since 2003, the Kurds have signed nearly two dozen oil production-sharing deals without consulting with the central government.


The Greater Houston Partnership will host representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government during a business opportunities luncheon at the Doubletree Hotel on Thursday. In 2008, Houston was Iraq’s largest U.S. trading partner, with some $7.6 billion in trade. Iraq was Houston’s ninth-largest trading partner worldwide and second-largest trading partner in the Middle East.


The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked by former Enron Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling to review convictions for his role in the collapse of what was once the nation’s seventh-largest company. Skilling attorney Daniel Petrocelli said the appeal was filed Monday, asking the nation’s high court to consider whether the federal “`honest services” fraud statute was applied correctly. Skilling maintains that under a federal fraud statute, prosecutors needed to show that he was aiming to advance his own interests rather than those of the company. The filing also questions whether Skilling received a fair trial without a change of venue. In February, similar claims were rejected without a hearing by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Skilling is serving a 24-year prison term in Colorado that will be reduced after a federal ruling that a sentencing guideline was improperly applied.

Employee confidence is up four percentage points to 45.4 in April, according to the latest Spherion Employee Confidence Index, as reported by the Houston Business Journal. About 16 per cent believe the economy is getting stronger, but 46 per cent still believe the economy is getting weaker. Sixty-five per cent feel confident in the future of their employer.

A new analysis from Challenger, Gray & Christmas points to an increasingly competitive job market. The Chicago-based outplacement firm finds that the current trend among employers is to scale back their outreach to the newly-graduated and draw from the pool of available experienced workers. Employer participation in career fairs is down on college campuses.

AAA says Americans are expected to travel slightly more during the Memorial Day holiday compared with last year. The national travel organization estimates that 32.4 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home during the weekend–a 1.5 per cent increase from last year. About 83 per cent of Memorial Day travelers are expected to hit the highways in a motor vehicle. Another seven per cent will travel by plane. The remaining ten per cent will get around by train, bus or another mode of transportation. AAA based its estimates on a forecast by Boston-based IHS Global Insight.

Bankers are pushing back against a bill that would prohibit arbitrary credit card rate hikes and make it harder for people under 21 to get a card. The American Bankers Association warned Senators in a letter that the legislation could restrict credit at a time when Americans need it most. Senate Democrats say they will not back down and hope to pass the measure this week. Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, said the bill has been a “long time coming.” Under a compromise proposal in the Senate, consumers who are paying more in interest because they have fallen behind on their credit-card bills could regain their older, lower rates if they pay their bills on time for six months. The Senate proposal was brokered between Republicans, who say lenders should be able to take into account a person’s behavior, and Democrats, who contend that the practice of hiking rates on past balances prevent consumers from climbing out of debt. The bill is expected to pass this week with President Barack Obama’s support.

The U.S. trade deficit rose in March for the first time since last July as the global recession cut sharply into sales of American exports. The politically sensitive deficit with China increased. The Commerce Department says the deficit widened to $27.6 billion in March, slightly lower than the $29 billion gap that economists had forecast. The March deficit was 5.5 per cent higher than February’s revised $26.1 billion trade gap, which had been the smallest since November 1999.

The federal government ran a deficit in April for the first time in 26 years, pushing the red ink so far this budget year to a record $802.3 billion. The Treasury Department says the deficit for April was $20.9 billion, a sharp contrast to a year ago when the government ran a surplus of $159.3 billion. For the budget year that began October 1st, the deficit totals $802.3 billion, putting the country well on track to register the first $1 trillion annual deficit in U.S. history. The Obama administration raised its deficit estimate for the year to $1.84 trillion, from the $1.75 trillion deficit it estimated less than two months ago.

The financial health of social security and Medicare, the government’s two biggest benefit programs, worsened in the past year because of the severe recession. Trustees of the two programs said that social security will start paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes in 2016, one year sooner than projected last year, and the giant trust fund will be depleted by 2037, four years sooner. The trustees said Medicare was in even worse shape. They said that the trust fund for hospital expenses will pay out more in benefits than it collects this year and will be insolvent by 2017, two years earlier than the date projected in last year’s report.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac says it needs $6.1 billion in additional government aid as the cost to taxpayers from the housing market bust keeps rising. The McLean, Virginia-based company, seized by federal regulators in September, posted a loss of $9.9 billion for the quarter ending March 31st. That compares with a loss of $149 million in the year-ago period. The results were driven by $8.8 billion in credit losses due to soaring delinquency rates and falling home prices, and $7.1 billion in write-downs of the value of its mortgage-backed securities. The request for federal aid is Freddie Mac’s third since the takeover, bringing its total up to more than $51 billion.

PC maker Dell is formally banning the export of broken computers, monitors and parts to developing countries. Dell says its revised policy defines e-waste more strictly than the Basel convention, an international treaty that governs e-waste handling. The Round Rock-based company says it’s been holding recycling partners to these high standards for years. By making the policy public, Dell raises the bar for competitors. Shipping such e-waste overseas isn’t illegal in the United States. Environmental groups say half or more of recycled electronics go to scrap yards in China, Ghana and other developing countries. There, the groups say they are smashed, burned or otherwise dismantled by hand, exposing workers to mercury, lead and other toxic materials.

A Minnesota-based medical technology company is getting $6 million from the state’s job creation fund to expand its diabetes unit in Texas. Medtronic and Governor Rick Perry announced the deal, which the company estimates will create 1,400 new jobs to staff a new 150,000-square-foot facility in San Antonio. Medtronic says its new diabetes unit will open this summer. The money is a grant from Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund.

A joint venture to draw natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation in southwestern Pennsylvania has a gas processing plant up and running south of Pittsburgh. The facility near Route 519 near Houston, Pennsylvania can process 30 million cubic feet of natural gas each day. The plant is a joint venture of Markwest Energy Partners, of Denver, and NGP Midstream & Resources, a private equity firm based here in Houston. The plant is about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh.

The on-time performance and baggage handling of U.S. Airlines improved in March compared with a year ago. But federal data show it’s worse than in February. Information from the U.S. Department of Transportation also shows the rate of cancellations and number of complaints to the government was lower year-over year, but higher than in February. The DOT’s Bureau of Transportation statistics said the 19 carriers reporting on-time performance recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 78.4 per cent in March. That beats the 71.6 per cent on-time rate of March 2008 but falls well short of the 82.6 per cent recorded in February. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines had the third-highest on-time arrival rate in March at 83.9 per cent. That topped the list for discount carriers.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service says a spring freeze that caused crop losses in Texas and Oklahoma will result in a national winter wheat harvest that’s 20 per cent smaller than last year’s crop. But in Kansas the official forecast is for 340 million bushels this year, down only slightly from 356 million bushels a year ago. Nationwide, winter wheat production is forecast at 1.5 billion bushels, down 20 per cent. Texas growers are facing a second-straight year of crop losses. Its 2009 crop forecast of 64.8 million bushels is down from both the 99 million bushels harvested in 2008 and the 140.6 million bushels in 2007.

HEB is recalling ground beef items packaged on foam trays and purchased Sunday at its Bellaire and Texas 6 location. HEB issued the voluntary recall after detecting trace metal shavings, which came loose during the grinding process. The affected packages have a sell-by date of 7 a.m. or 12 p.m. on May 11th.

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