Wednesday PM December 23rd, 2009

New home sales plunge in wake of this week's stronger resale figures…Personal income rises at fastest pace in six months…Retail gasoline prices in Texas averaging three cents lower this week…


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Sales of new homes plunged unexpectedly last month to the lowest level since April. The Commerce Department says November’s sales fell 11.3 per cent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 355,000 from a downwardly revised 400,000 in October. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected a pace of 440,000. Sales were down nine per cent from a year ago. The results suggest buyers will wait until spring before taking advantage of newly extended and expanded federal tax incentives designed to spur sales. The median sales price of $217,400 was down nearly two per cent from $221,600 a year earlier, but up about four per cent from October’s level of $209,400.

Home resales in the south skyrocketed last month as first-time buyers hurried to grab an expiring federal tax credit while exploiting low prices and mortgage rates. The National Association of Realtors reports the south recorded 176,000 home sales in November. That’s up 48 per cent from a year earlier, when the nation was dizzied by the financial market meltdown. The median sales price fell slightly more than one per cent, to $151,400. Houston proved to be a strong market last month with its steady oil- and health-care-based economy and solid employment base. Sales of existing homes jumped 34 per cent, while prices rose nearly nine per cent to $150,000–the largest price increase among southern cities in the AP-Re/Max report. One hot area is central Houston, inside the loop, because it’s encircled by expressways.

Personal incomes rose in November at the fastest pace in six months while spending posted a second straight increase, raising hopes that that the recovery from the nation’s deep recession might be gaining momentum. The Commerce Department says personal incomes were up 0.4 per cent in November, helped by a $16.1 billion increase in wages and salaries, reflecting the drop in unemployment that occurred last month. The gain in incomes helped bolster spending, which rose 0.5 per cent in November. Both the income and spending gains were slightly less than economists had expected.

Regular self-serve gasoline is averaging three cents per gallon less across Texas than last week going into the Christmas weekend. The weekly AAA Texas survey showed regular was selling for an average of $2.43 per gallon across the state. Nationally, regular is averaging $2.59 per gallon, a penny less than last week. Houston and Galveston have the cheapest gasoline in Texas at $2.38 per gallon, three to four cents less than last week. El Paso again had the costliest gas at $2.57, down a penny from last week. An auto club statement says gasoline is selling for about 90 cents a gallon more than at this time last year in most of Texas.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says he believes it’s reasonable to expect “positive job growth” by spring and that people should have confidence about an improving economic climate. In an interview broadcast on ABC”s Good Morning America, Geithner also said he believes many banks around the country still have work ahead of them to regain the public’s faith. He said, “they need to work very hard to shore it up” and said he wasn’t certain that “all banks get it.” Geithner’s stewardship of the treasury has come in for criticism on occasion. He said, “I think most people would say the economy actually is strengthening now going into the end of the year,” but that the key is to regain lost jobs.

Billionaire Warren Buffett will sit down with former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to talk about the economy at an Omaha event next year. Buffett, who is CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and Paulson, who led the treasury during last year’s economic meltdown, will headline the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting on February 9th. Buffett and Paulson will discuss excerpts from Paulson’s new book On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System. The book is scheduled to be released on February 1st.

State environmental regulators want an immediate response to complaints about oil and gas drilling in the Barnett shale. The directive by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to its Dallas-Fort Worth regional office orders staff to investigate on-site within 12 hours of receiving a complaint. The commission provided a copy of the directive this week to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. If a hazard or unsafe condition is found, TCEQ staff must contact the company to request immediate corrective action. Investigators must remain at the site until the emergency is “abated as appropriate,” according to the directive issued last week. Residents in north Texas have expressed concern about pollution emitted by natural gas operations.

Devon Energy said that it’ll sell three development projects in the Gulf of Mexico to Maersk Oil for $1.3 billion. It’s part of Devon’s strategy to reposition the Oklahoma City-based company as a North American onshore company. The projects are in the deepwater Walker Ridge federal lease area off of Louisiana. The deal covers Devon’s 50 per cent working interest in the Cascade project and 25 per cent working interests in the Jack and St. Malo projects. Devon said last month that it wanted to sell its Gulf of Mexico and international assets and rededicate itself to onshore drilling and the techniques that it helped to pioneer almost a decade ago. It acquired Houston-based Mitchell Energy in 2002, a company that had figured out how to free enormous amounts of natural gas from rock formations using pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals. Devon began drilling in the Barnett shale of North Texas, and total extraction reached about 200 million cubic feet of natural gas equivalent per day.

El Paso is building 32 electric car charging stations around the city. City officials who announced the project say the plan is being funded with a $256,000 federal grant to promote alternative fuel use for government vehicles. Thirteen other Texas cities also won similar grants. City officials say the charging stations will be the first in West Texas.

Russia’s Supreme Court has ruled that a lower court’s 2003 decision to arrest Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s business partner Platon Lebedev was illegal on procedural grounds. The review was done in response to a ruling two years ago in the European Court of Human Rights that found Lebedev’s rights had been violated during his arrest and pretrial detention. Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and once Russia’s richest man, also was arrested in 2003. Both men are serving eight-year prison sentences after being convicted of fraud and tax evasion in a politically charged trial. They are now on trial for a second time on new but related charges. Lebedev’s lawyers said they were not yet sure of the implications of Wednesday’s court decision.

Procrastinators may be out of luck this holiday season. Some last-minute shoppers are being met with bare shelves when it comes to key holiday items such as Christmas lights and inflatable Santas. For those sprucing up for a holiday party, glamour is in short supply. Bloomingdales says it has sold out of practically “anything that sparkles.” And this late in the season, zhu zhu pets aren’t the only hard-to-find toys. One shopper searching for Lego and erector sets says he had to pay up to 35 per cent markup on eBay because he couldn’t find the toys in stores. Last year, waiting until the bitter end meant discounts up to 90 per cent on overstocked items. But this year, stores cut inventories, willing to run the risk of running out rather than having to slash prices.

Health care providers are hoping some people will give the gift of medical care this year. Several health care companies are rolling out gift cards similar to those offered by retail stores and restaurants. Some can be used to pay bills or insurance premiums while others give holders discounts on specific services or purchases. But industry observers say some cards may not be right for many consumers because they have numerous restrictions or because they cost more than the benefit is worth. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida sells cards at Winn-Dixie and CVS Stores. With its $19 card, recipients receive discounts on vision care, dental work and prescription drugs. Its $59 card can be used to help pay a premium or toward access to health insurance.

There’s an old standby for many believers looking for financial advice during the recession: the Holy Bible. For Florida real estate developer Bob Vigliotti, it helped him get control of his spending habit when one of his projects fell victim to the downturn. He says it helped him let go of the angst and depression of financial trouble. Ron Blue is the founder of a firm that trains Christian financial professionals. He says almost all sound financial advice has roots in scriptures. But financial author Robert Manning says Biblical stories from millenia ago aren’t sophisticated enough to guide every decision in a world with rising health care and housing costs, and complicated credit and tax laws.

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