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Friday PM December 10th, 2010

Global oil demand forecast raised for next two years…U.S. trade deficit falls to lowest level in nine months…Teacher Retirement System of Texas turns in best one-year performance among nation’s largest public pension funds…


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The International Energy Agency says it has raised its forecast for global oil demand this year and next, based on stronger-than-expected economic data from North America and emerging countries in Asia. The agency based in Paris raised its 2010 estimate to 87.4 million barrels a day, up 130,000 daily barrels from its previous forecast. It says that demand next year should hit 88.8 million barrels a day, 260,000 daily barrels more than earlier expected. The agency is the energy arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of the world’s richest nations.

The U.S. trade deficit fell to its lowest level in nine months, as growing demand for American goods overseas pushed exports to their highest level in more than two years. The Commerce Department says the trade deficit narrowed to $38.7 billion in October. The figure was 13.2 percent below September’s deficit of $44.6 billion. U.S. exports rose 3.2 percent to $158.7 billion, the highest level since August 2008. Sales of American-made machinery, farm products and autos fueled the growth. Imports dipped 0.5 percent to $197.4 billion, with lower demand for oil and foreign-made cars.

President Barack Obama is predicting Congressional approval of his tax-cutting compromise with Republicans. Yet he’s not ruling out some changes as unhappy Democrats put finishing touches on the legislation. In an interview with NPR, Obama says his compromise with GOP leaders was a framework, not a bill. He says he’s confident the final version will look like the deal he struck with Republicans. Obama’s accord with the GOP would cut income tax rates for all earners, renew long-term jobless benefits and trim social security taxes for one year. Democrats have objected, saying it is too generous to the rich, especially its provisions cutting estate taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

Legislation aimed at avoiding sweeping tax increases looks headed for Senate approval after negotiators added sweeteners to promote ethanol and other alternative energies. Tax provisions designed to increase production of hybrid cars, biodiesel fuel, energy-efficient homes, coal and energy-efficient household appliances would be extended through the end of 2011. It appears the deal will get overwhelming support. Supporters say it would help accelerate a sluggish recovery from recession. Action in the Senate comes even though House Democrats have balked at the plan hashed out by President Barack Obama and GOP lawmakers.

A nearly 13 percent return for the pension system that benefits Texas teachers means $9.7 million in performance bonuses to its investment team. The Austin American-Statesman reported, for its Friday editions, that the $104 billion Teacher Retirement System of Texas turned in the best one-year performance among the nation’s largest public pension funds. The return earned Chief Investment Officer Britt Harris a bonus of nearly double his $480,000 base salary. But Tim Lee with the Texas Retired Teachers Association says the bonuses are “going to sting” for retirees who haven’t had an increase in their monthly checks in the past decade. The fund still has only 83 cents for every dollar needed to meet its long-term obligations. Texas law says no additional benefits can go to retirees unless the trust fund is considered fully funded.

The government’s heavily criticized $700 billion financial rescue program has earned nearly $35 billion in income over the past two years. According to data obtained by the Associated Press, income from the Troubled Asset Relief Program rose nearly 17 percent through November, compared to where it stood in October. The profits were boosted by the government’s on-going sales of Citigroup stock. The $35 billion estimate will be included in the monthly report on the bailout that is due to be released later Friday. The AP obtained the data in advance.

Homeowners who delayed locking in super-low mortgage rates–think close to four percent for a 30-year fixed–may have waited too long. Rates are creeping back up, in part because of the tax-cut deal in Washington. Now those in the market to buy or refinance have to decide whether to take what’s available or wait–and run the risk that rates will keep rising. Freddie Mac says that average rates on 15- and 30-year fixed loans increased sharply from last week. It was the fourth straight weekly rise. Fixed rates had been the lowest in decades. Even though they’re rising, mortgage rates remain at extraordinarily low levels by historical standards. The average rate on the 30-year mortgage rose to 4.61 percent from 4.46 percent last week. It hit 4.17 percent a month ago, the lowest level in the 40 years that comparable records have been kept.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft registry is missing key information on who owns one-third of the 357,000 private and commercial planes in the U.S. The FAA fears the information gap could be exploited by terrorists and drug traffickers. The records are in such disarray that the FAA says it is worried that criminals could buy planes without the government’s knowledge, or use the registration numbers of other aircraft to evade new computer systems designed to track suspicious flights. About 119,000 of the planes on the U.S. registry have “questionable registration” because of missing forms, invalid addresses, unreported sales or other paperwork problems. To fix the problem, all aircraft owners will be ordered to reregister their planes. Next year, the FAA will begin canceling the registration certificates of all 357,000 aircraft and require owners to register anew. Some owners received notices last month.

The federal government says more than half of America’s farmers work jobs off the farm to make ends meet. The trend of farmers taking jobs to help pay the bills isn’t new, but it’s becoming more common. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the figure has grown from 55 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2007. Those who work off the farm also are putting in more days away from the fields. In 1929, only one in 16 farmers reported working 200 days or more off the farm. By 1947, one in six farmers reported that much off-farm work, and by 1997, the ratio was one in three farmers. The 2007 survey reported that almost 900,000 farmers worked more than 200 days a year in other jobs.