Wednesday PM September 15th, 2010

Boeing gets 1.24 billion NASA contract…State rolling back pension benefits…Austin insurance company reaches settlement over discrimination in rates charged to black policy holders…

Boeing says NASA has given the company a $1.24 billion, five-year extension to a contract covering engineering work on the International Space Station. Boeing will provide engineering for hardware and software on the U.S. part of the space station and for some hardware and software available to international partners. The extension begins with the new federal fiscal year on October 1st. Boeing’s work will include oversight of maintenance, monitoring system performance and other duties. It will cover buying spare parts and modifying current systems. The work will be done at NASA facilities in Houston, Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Huntsville, Alabama; and at Boeing sites in Houston, Huntsville, and Huntington Beach, California. Boeing’s program manager for the space station, Joy Bryant, said the work will set the stage to keep the space station operating until 2020 and possibly through 2028.

State governments trying to balance their budgets have started rolling back pension benefits for public sector employees. Several states have told current workers that their deals won’t be as good as originally promised, and others are looking into it. At least three states are trying to reduce annual cost-of-living increases in the pensions of workers who already have retired. In New Jersey, fears of benefit cuts for future retirees may be one reason for a jump in retirements. Through the first seven months of this year, 48 percent more public sector workers retired–or filed papers to do so later in the year–than did in all of 2009. Unions for public workers say they’re monitoring the benefit rollbacks.

Industrial production rose modestly in August and the manufacturing sector grew for the 12th time in 13 months. The Federal Reserve reports that output at the nation’s factories, mines and utilities edged up 0.2 percent last month. It rose 0.6 percent in July. Production at factories, the largest single element of industrial production, slowed to 0.2 percent after gaining 0.7 percent in July. Much of softness came from a decline in auto production, which spiked in July. excluding autos, manufacturing rose 0.5 percent. Output rose for basic consumer goods such as food, clothing and paper by more than 1.0 percent. Manufacturing has helped drive economic growth over the past year.

The Obama administration is seeking tighter oversight of the nation’s pipelines and stronger penalties for violations of pipeline safety rules after a deadly explosion in California. The legislation was submitted to Congress by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The proposal follows several major pipeline accidents. A Pacific Gas & Electric gas pipeline explosion last week killed at least four people in suburban San Francisco and destroyed or severely damaged dozens of homes. An oil spill from a pipeline owned by a Canadian company near Marshal, Michigan, sent an estimated 820,000 to a million gallons spewing into the Kalamazoo River in late July.

Toyota has moved to dismiss hundreds of lawsuits over claims stemming from sudden acceleration in its vehicles. The auto giant filed a motion with a federal court in Santa Ana, California, saying attorneys for Toyota drivers had failed to identify any defects in the vehicles. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against Toyota after the automaker began recalling millions of vehicles because of acceleration problems in several models and brake glitches with the Prius Hybrid. All of the federal cases were consolidated and assigned to a federal judge in Santa Ana. Some plaintiffs claimed Toyota’s electronic throttle control system has a defect. Lawyers for Toyota say there’s no evidence of a flaw.

An insurance company has reached a settlement with state regulators over discrimination in rates charged to black policy holders. A statement issued by the Texas Department of Insurance says Austin-based Citizens National Life Insurance settled the complaints against two companies citizens subsequently acquired. The statement stressed that Citizens was not accused of discriminating against black policyholders. The statement says the predecessor companies historically sold various types of insurance policies to black consumers at rates higher than those charged white policyholders. Under the settlement, the company will add 23 percent to the face values of eligible policies.

Chase’s online banking service was restored just after 1 a.m. EST on Wednesday after being down all day Tuesday. The site went down on Monday night, affecting its 16.5 million customers who bank online. Chase spokesman Thomas Kelly couldn’t specify the exact time service was disrupted, or the reasons for the outage, only saying that it stemmed from a technical problem. Outraged bank customers took to their Twitter accounts to share their frustration. Some wondered what would happen to automated bill payments scheduled for that day. Kelly said Chase would work with any customers who had online bill payment deadlines they couldn’t meet because of the outage.

A federal regulator is criticizing banks for failing to take back bad mortgages sold to giant mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Edward Demarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, says in testimony prepared for a House committee hearing that the two government-controlled companies had tried to send more than $11 billion in bad loans back to lenders as of this summer, but have met resistance. A third of those requests has been outstanding for at least three months. Demarco says delays by lenders in repurchasing these loans are a significant concern. Investors who buy loans from banks have the right to force lenders to repurchase them if they later discover fraudulent statements on loan applications.

The nation’s farmers’ markets are attracting few food stamp users, despite widespread efforts to reach out to low-income shoppers. About one-fourth of the nation’s 6,000 or so farmers’ markets accept food stamps, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says less than 0.01 percent of SNAP benefits redeemed last year went to farmers’ markets. It says 82 percent went to grocery stores and supercenters. Advocates say the issue is important because one in eight Americans now receives food stamps. And low-income communities often have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems made worse without access to fresh, healthy foods.

Microsoft says a “beta” test version of Internet Explorer 9, its newest Web browser software, is now available for download. Microsoft’s updated browser taps into powerful processors on newer computers to make websites run faster. The software maker has also redesigned the way the browser looks. The IE9 frame around Websites is now translucent, and there are few buttons. That means more of the screen space can be devoted to the Website’s contents. The new browser lets people treat Websites like programs on Windows 7 computers. They can “pin” sites to the task bar at the bottom of the screen, creating a one-click shortcut. IE9 can only work on PCs with Windows 7 or Vista. It doesn’t work on older Windows XP computers or on Macs.