Thursday PM August 7th, 2008

EPA denies governor's request to soften federal ethanol mandate…BP investing $90 in non-food biofuels development…National Association of Realtors says pending home sales rose in June…

The Environmental Protection Agency has denied a request from Governor Rick Perry to cut the federal ethanol mandate in half for a year. Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said EPA administrator Stephen Johnson spoke to Perry about his waiver request by phone shortly before Johnson was to announce the agency's decision publicly Thursday. An energy bill passed in December required nine billion gallons of ethanol be blended into gasoline from September 1st to August 31st of next year. Perry asked the EPA in April to drop the renewable fuels standard requirement to 4.5 billion gallons because demand for ethanol is raising corn prices for livestock producers and driving up food prices.


BP is investing $90 million in a U.S. non-food biofuels company. BP's investment in cellulosic ethanol technology could lead to the development of plants in the U.S. and possibly abroad. Massachusetts-based Verenium has developed technology to make ethanol from sugar cane and other energy crops including miscanthus, a perennial grass. Tough targets for corn ethanol are higher in coming years, but new federal energy legislation calls for a gradual move to cellulosic ethanol. More than half of total biofuels mandated by 2022 are required to be cellulosic ethanol. Royal Dutch Shell holds a 50 per cent stake in Canada's Iogen Energy, also working on cellulosic ethanol. Houston-based ConocoPhillips is partnering with Tyson Foods to make renewable diesel fuel from chicken fat.


The National Association of Realtors says its measurement of pending home sales rose in June. The trade group's seasonally adjusted index of pending sales for existing homes rose 5.3 percent to 89 from May's reading. It's 12 percent below year-ago levels, but still surprised Wall Street economists who had predicted the index would fall to 84.3. Home sales are considered pending when the seller has accepted an offer, but the deal has not yet closed. Typically there is a one- to two-month lag before a sale is completed.

Texas ranks second nationwide in average closing costs for mortgages, according to a report in the Houston Business Journal. And the new study by New York-based Bankrate shows that average closing costs overall keep going up, despite a soft housing market. The nationwide 2007 average closing cost of $2,736 has gone up 14 percent to an average of $3,118 this year. The average fee in Texas is $3,975.

Rates on 30-year mortgages didn't budge this week, while rates on other home loans are mixed. Freddie Mac, reports that 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages averaged 6.52 per cent this week. That's the same as last week's rate, the second-highest of the year. The highest was 6.63 percent two weeks ago. Meanwhile, rates on 15-year, fixed-rate mortgages, a popular choice for refinancing, rose to 6.1 per cent this week, up from 6.07 percent last week. But other rates went down. Rates on five-year, adjustable-rate mortgages averaged 6.05 per cent this week--down slightly from 6.07 per cent last week. And rates on one-year arms dipped to 5.22 per cent, compared with 5.27 per cent.


Americans are increasingly shifting their spending to necessities and away from nonessentials like apparel. That has resulted in solid sales gains in July for low-priced operators like Wal-Mart and sluggish sales for mall-based apparel chains. As the nation's retailers report monthly sales reports, it's clear that with the benefits of rebate checks fading, consumers are pulling back even more on spending. Wal-Mart reported July sales that met the company's plan but were slightly below Wall Street estimates and said that consumers are increasingly running out of money. Costco's same-store sales beat estimates. Same-store sales are those at stores open at least a year. Retailers preparing for a difficult back-to-school season are launching aggressive campaigns to entice shoppers. They're slashing prices, offering discounts or cash back on some items, running special promotions and amping up marketing in the battle for bucks. But analysts say store efforts probably won't make much difference to consumers pressured by rising costs. They'll likely stick to shopping at discounters as their tax-rebate checks dry up. A weak back-to-school season could signal trouble for the all-important holiday season that follows soon after.


The European Central Bank has kept its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 4.25 percent even as the 15 countries that use the Euro face continued high inflation and fears of slowing growth. Thursday's decision mirrors similar moves by the Federal Reserve Bank and Bank of England this week. Markets will parse remarks by ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet later when he speaks to reporters about the decision. The European economy is slowing as soaring fuel and food prices slam the brakes on growth. It's also suffering from tight borrowing conditions triggered by the global credit crisis and a slowdown in major trading partners, Britain and the United States.


Once again, Lexus stands at the top of J.D. Power and Associates vehicle dependability rankings. It's the 14th straight year the high-end brand owned by Toyota has held the highest ranking, though last year it shared the top spot with Buick, which is down to sixth place this year. The study measures problems experienced by the original owners of vehicles after three years. Ford's Mercury brand ranked second, followed by General Motors' Cadillac. Land Rover, which Ford sold this year to an Indian company, was the worst-performing brand. Overall, the industry average shows another year of improvement. What's more, the types of problems reported are trending to what are considered "soft" problems.


Arkansas-based Tyson Foods is recalling more than 51,000 pounds of frozen raw chicken breast tenderloin over concerns it may contain soy. The recall covers 29 states, including Texas. The world's largest meat processor said that soy--a known allergen--was not declared on the product's label. Tyson says the meat came from a plant in Vicksburg, Mississippi, between July 23rd and August 1st, and was shipped to Tyson Food Service distributors nationwide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service says it has received no reports about people being sickened by the chicken.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...