Wednesday PM March 24th, 2010

New home sales fall to lowest level on records dating to 1963…Former Continental employees on trial in Paris stemming from 2000 Concorde crash…Postal Service starts effort to discontinue Saturday delivery…

Sales of new homes fell unexpectedly to the lowest level on record in February as stormy winter weather kept buyers on the sidelines. The weak results make clear the difficulties facing the housing industry as it tries to recover from the worst slump in decades. The Commerce Department reports that new home sales fell 2.2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 308,000. It was the fourth consecutive month of declines and the worst showing on records dating to 1963. January's results, meanwhile, were revised upward slightly to a pace of 315,000. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected sales would rise to an annual rate of 320,000.


Orders for big-ticket manufactured goods rose for a third consecutive month in February, bolstered by strong demand for commercial aircraft and machinery. The hope is that continued strength in manufacturing will help sustain the economic recovery. The Commerce Department said that orders for durable goods advanced 0.5 percent last month, slightly lower than the 0.7 percent gain that economists had expected. The increase was led by the second huge jump in demand for commercial aircraft, an increase of 32.7 percent which followed a 134.9 percent rise in this volatile category in January. Excluding transportation, orders posted a 0.9 percent increase, much better than the 0.6 percent decline in January.


A retired Continental Airlines maintenance chief has defended himself in a French court from charges that he was partly responsible for the crash of a Concorde supersonic jet a decade ago. Houston-based Continental Airlines and two employees are among those on trial for manslaughter in the fiery July 25th, 2000, crash of the Concorde near Paris. The jet plunged into a hotel soon after takeoff from the Charles de Gaulle Airport, killing all 109 people aboard and four on the ground. The Houston-based carrier is on trial because investigators say a Continental DC-10 dropped a metal strip onto the runway before the Air France Concorde took off. They say the runway debris gashed the plane's tire, sending pieces of rubber into the fuel tanks and sparking a fire. Continental denies any responsibility, saying a fire broke out on the Concorde before the plane reached the runway debris.


The U.S. Postal Service has taken the first step toward cutting back mail delivery to five days a week. The Postal Governing Board agreed to ask the Independent Postal Regulatory Commission for an opinion on dropping Saturday delivery. That request goes to the commission next week. Postal officials say the change would save more than $3 billion annually. Post offices would still remain open on Saturdays, and Express Mail would still be delivered. Congress would have to consent to the change.


The final chapter of health care overhaul is expected to finish playing out in the Senate this week. Senators are debating a package of fixes to the new health law signed by the president. House Democrats demanded the fixes as the price for their support. Its approval at the end of this week is virtually assured, but Republicans vow to do everything they can against the measure. President Barack Obama signed the health care bill at the White House. But opinion polls show the public remains skeptical, so Obama's trip to Iowa tomorrow for the first of a number of appearances may find him still trying to sell the plan to voters instead of taking a victory lap. The massive, nearly $1 trillion program will, for the first time, cement insurance coverage as the right of every U.S. citizen. It will begin to reshape the way virtually all Americans receive and pay for treatment.

President Obama has signed an executive order designed to ensure that no federal money can be used for elective abortions under the nation's new health care legislation. Obama agreed to the order on Sunday to ensure passage of the health care overhaul that is central to his agenda. The deal won the votes of anti-abortion lawmaker Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan and a bloc of other House members who wanted assurances that existing federal policy would not change. The order affirms a prohibition on federal funding of abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the woman's life.


The Obama administration is going on the attack against the country's biggest business lobby because of its resistance to an overhaul of the financial rules system. Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the financial overhaul was sorely needed and the lobby group's obstruction was unacceptable. "...It is so puzzling that despite the urgent and undeniable need for reform, the Chamber of Commerce has launched a $3 million advertising campaign against it," Wolin said in address to a conference of the group at its headquarters.


The House has passed a bill that would send billions of dollars to local governments for construction projects and welfare programs, the latest in a series of election-year jobs bills Democrats are pushing. The House voted 246-178 to pass the bill, which combines $13.2 billion in interest subsidies for local construction bonds with $3.6 billion in tax cuts for small businesses. The legislation also would provide $2.5 billion to states to fund expanded welfare programs through September 2011. Republicans argued that the tax cuts were too small and the spending too inefficient to make any significant dent in unemployment. The bill now goes to the Senate.


Bank of America is taking a major step to help some of its most troubled mortgage borrowers. The bank says it will forgive up to 30 percent of some customers' loan principal. The bank says it will start forgiving principal for homeowners who owe more than 120 percent of their home's value. The plan, to begin in May, is among the first by a U.S. mortgage lender that takes a systematic approach to reducing mortgage principal when home values drop well below the amount owed. The effort is aimed at preventing foreclosures. Bank of America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is the largest mortgage servicer in the country.


A Federal Reserve official says record-low interest rates are still needed to help boost the economic recovery. Janet Yellen, who is the president's choice to become the Fed's vice chair, says the expected sluggish recovery means unemployment will probably stay high for years. Yellen, who is currently the head of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, says the jobless rate will only fall to about 9.25 percent by the end of the year. It's now at 9.7 percent. In addition, she says it looks like the housing market has stalled.


Banks and other private lenders are about to lose a $70 billion-a-year student loan business, part of a massive overhaul of college assistance programs that has received an unexpected boost from President Barack Obama's health care success. Under the measure, banks no longer would get fees from the government for acting as middlemen for loans to low- and middle-income students. With those savings, the government would increase Pell grants to needy students and make it easier for graduates burdened by student loans to pay them back. The bill would mean the loss of billions of dollars in business to student lending giant Sallie Mae as well as large financial institutions such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.


ConocoPhillips says it will sell half its stake in Russian oil giant Lukoil as part of its plan to unload $10 billion in assets over the next two years. The company said that other potential sales in 2010 include the company's interest in Canadian oil sands project Syncrude, the Rockies Express natural gas pipeline and energy producing properties in the U.S. and Canada. It also will sale the rest of its U.S. marketing assets. ConocoPhillips, which owns 20 percent of Lukoil, said it will use the money to boost dividends, buy back stock and fund its capital program. At an analyst meeting in New York, the Houston company will detail its plans to use some of the money from the sales to improve production.


The Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority as approved a two-year contract to Konecranes for the purchase of spare and replacement parts for rubber-tired gantry cranes at Barbours Cut and the Bayport container terminals. The $350,000 contract covers 22 cranes at Barbours Cut and 18 at Bayport. Nine additional cranes are due for delivery by May.

The Port of Houston handled 91,204 twenty-foot-equivalent-units from Brazil last year, according to statistics compiled by Datamar. That's a gain of U.S./Brazil container trade from 15.4 percent in 2006 to 19.5 percent in 2009.


Go Daddy Group, a leading reseller of Internet domain names, says it will stop registering new names in China. The company says it's taking the step because the Chinese government has begun demanding pictures and other identification documents from its customers. Word that company will stop setting up Web sites in China's ".cn" domain comes two days after Google said it will no longer censor Internet search results in China. A Go Daddy executive announced its move at a Congressional hearing on Google's actions. Go Daddy has been registering domain names in China since 2005. The company said it is concerned about the security of its customers and "the chilling effect" of the new Chinese government requirements.

Four countries and two territories have won preliminary approval to have Internet addresses written entirely in their native scripts as early as this summer. However, proposals for Internet addresses that would say "China" and "Taiwan" in Chinese will require a few more months of technical review. The delay is not over political disputes, but rather because the Chinese language can be written in two ways--using simplified and traditional scripts. Rules are being developed to make sure that addresses in either script go to the same Web sites. With the addition of non-Latin suffixes, internet users with little or no knowledge of English would no longer have to type Latin characters to access Web pages targeting Chinese, Arabic or other speakers.


The mysterious four-year-old crisis of disappearing honeybees is deepening. A quick federal survey indicates a heavy bee die-off this winter, while a new study shows honeybees' pollen and hives laden with pesticides. Two federal agencies along with regulators in California and Canada are ordering new research on pesticides used in fields and orchards. Federal courts are even weighing in this month, ruling that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overlooked a requirement when allowing a pesticide on the market. Scientists are concerned because of the vital role bees play in our food supply. About one-third of the human diet is from plants that require pollination from honeybees.


Students and faculty at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business will ring the New York Stock Exchange Closing Bell tomorrow afternoon at 3 p.m., Central Daylight Time, from the McNair Hall plaza near the bull and bear sculptures at the Jones School's main entrance. It's part of a day-long series of activities at Rice at which CEOs of NYSE corporations will discuss the future of capital markets with up-and-coming business and academic leaders. A panel discussion and bell ringing will be streamed live.


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...