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Monday PM August 13th, 2009

New unemployment claims rise as continuing claims sharply…Business inventories reduce further; total business sales post increase…Zogby finds one third of U.S. adults say they're "seriously impacted" by recession…

The number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits rose unexpectedly last week, while continuing claims fell sharply. The Labor Department says new claims increased to a seasonally adjusted 558,000, from 554,000 the previous week. Analysts expected new claims to drop to 545,000, according to Thomson Reuters. The number of people remaining on the benefit rolls fell to 6.2 million from 6.34 million the previous week. Analysts had expected a slight decline. The four-week average of initial claims, which smoothes out fluctuations, rose by 8,500 to 565,000, after falling for six straight weeks.

The blog from the Texas Workforce Commission has been launched for sharing job information between companies and job-seekers. Posts focus on statistics and policy issues. Communications from TWC Chairman Tom Paulken will be posted.

Business inventories were reduced for a tenth straight month in June, although total business sales posted the first increase in nearly a year. The Commerce Department says businesses cut stockpiles 1.1 per cent in June, slightly larger than the 0.9 per cent drop economists expected. The reductions have translated into sharp production cutbacks at factories, adding to the steep recession. But in an encouraging sign for the future, the government says business sales at all levels rose 0.9 per cent in June after being flat in May. It marked the first increase in total sales since July 2008.

Retail sales outside of autos turned in a disappointing performance in July, underscoring concerns about the timing and durability of a recovery from the worst recession since World War II. The Commerce Department says retail sales fell 0.1 per cent last month, a much worse performance than the 0.7 per cent gain that economists had expected. While autos, helped by the start of the cash for clunkers program, showed a 2.4 per cent jump–the biggest in six months–there was widespread weakness elsewhere with gasoline stations, department stores, electronics outlets and furniture stores all reporting declines.

Foreclosures in Harris County were down almost six per cent in July, according to RealtyTrac. The county’s 2,658 foreclosures filed last month—down from 2,827 in June. State fillings amount to one for every 781 households in Texas.

A new Zogby poll finds one third of U.S. adults say they are “seriously impacted” by the current recession. Some 14 per cent say their households have been “devastated.” Only 41 per cent expect their household financial situations to return to pre-recession conditions–the lower the income, the higher reported levels of impact and less optimism about recovery. Republicans were most likely to indicate the highest levels of impact.

There’s a speed bump in plans by Southwest Airlines to buy Frontier Airlines at a bankruptcy court auction. The head of the Southwest Airlines pilot union says the two pilot unions did not reach a deal Wednesday night. Southwest executives have said they want agreement between the pilots before buying Frontier. It appears the talks broke down over seniority, the ranking of pilots that determines their rights for schedules and protects them if there are layoffs. Southwest Pilot Union President Carl Kuwitzky says their offer was to put Frontier pilots at the bottom of the combined seniority list. For pilots in an airline merger, that’s considered the worst possible outcome.

Two consumer advocacy groups are calling on the Transportation Department to protect car buyers from questionable cash for clunkers deals at showrooms. The groups say some dealers are pressuring car and truck buyers to sign agreements that make them liable if the dealer is not reimbursed by the government for a cash for clunkers sale. The DOT has said customers are not required to sign such agreements. The groups, however, say shoppers are being pressured into less favorable deals, even if no waiver is signed. The program allows consumers to trade in old gas guzzlers for up to $4,500 if they buy a new, more fuel-efficient car. A DOT spokeswoman was not immediately available to comment.

ExxonMobil has pleaded guilty to killing migratory birds in Texas and four other states. The Justice Department announced the company will pay a penalty of about $7,000 for each bird killed. Irving-based ExxonMobil pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of approximately 85 migratory birds. Most of the animals died after exposure to natural gas well reserve pits and waste water storage facilities. Birds died in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas between 2004 and 2009. Officials said that at those sites, birds would either get coated in hydrocarbons or ingest the oily waste, leading to their deaths. The firm will pay $600,000 in a fine and payments to wetlands preservation funds. ExxonMobil agreed to make changes to prevent such bird deaths in the future, and says it’s already spent $2.5 million in the effort.

AcuityHealthcare has opened its second Houston hospital. It’s on Hermann Drive in the space occupied by the former Apex TMC Hospital, which opened in 2008. Acuity-Healthcare also opened Icon Hospital on McKay in Humble last year.

Fourteen Houston businesses have places on this year’s Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies based on revenue growth over a four-year period ending last year. The highest-ranked Houston firm is StarTex Power at number 30. At number 38 is Oil Chem Technologies. Others on the list include Remedy Roofing, eCardio Diagnostics, Ingenious, HostGator, Thrustmaster of Texas, Strike Construction, EMS, Pop Labs, Integrated Mortgage Solutions, Wise Men Consultants, RigNet and Luxor.

Banks reduced their borrowing from the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending facility over the past week, and cut back on other programs designed to ease the financial crisis. The Fed says commercial banks averaged $33.9 billion in daily borrowing over the week that ended Wednesday. That was down from $35.1 billion in the week ended August 5th. The identities of the financial institutions are not released. They pay just 0.50 per cent in interest for the emergency loans.

Abraham Lincoln got a present for his 200th birthday–a brand new penny. Officials with the U.S. Mint plan revealed the new one cent coin. On the front is the classic Lincoln image that’s been on pennies for years. On the back, Lincoln is shown delivering a speech at the old State Capitol in Illinois. Joel Iskowitz designed the penny. He calls it the biggest honor of his career and says it’s a little daunting to think that so many people will see it. This is the third of four new pennies marking the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. The earlier pennies showed the log cabin where Lincoln was born and a scene of Lincoln reading. The fourth penny will celebrate Lincoln as president.


Blockbuster says its second-quarter loss narrowed as the struggling video rental chain cut costs amid declines in revenue. The results are below analyst estimates, though. Dallas-based Blockbuster said it lost $39.7 million. The company’s loss totaled $44.7 million in the same quarter last year. Revenue fell nearly 22 per cent to $1.02 billion, missing the $1.12 billion analysts were looking for. The company cut expenses 17 per cent to $562.5 million.