Thursday AM October 19th, 2006

Houston home sales could produce new annual records...Lower gasoline prices affect September's Consumer Price Index...Electronics to buy Minnesota-based Pemstar in $300 million deal...

Houston housing sales in September showed continued strength, even as sales sag across the rest of the nation. The Houston Association of Realtors says price appreciation and increased sales are combining to ensure that Houston will see new annual records across the board before the end of the year. HAR says the housing market saw increases in total property sales, average sales price, median sales price and overall total dollar volume on a year-over-year basis. Total property sales for the month totaled 7,163—a 17.3 percent increase over September 2005. Properties sold during the month reached nearly $1.4 billion—a 23.7 percent increase compared to last year's more than $1.1 billion in September sales. The median home price for a single-family home reached a monthly record of $150,000, and the average single-family home price fell back below the $200,000 mark at $199,752, increases from last year of 3.1 and 4.5 percent.

A leveling out in the housing market? The Commerce Department says new construction of homes and apartments was on the rebound in September after declining for three straight months. Housing starts rose 5.9 percent, defying predictions of another decline. At the same time, a gauge of future activity, building permits, fell 6.3 percent. That's the eighth straight monthly decline.

Relief at the gasoline pump is reflected in the Consumer Price Index for September. The drop of five-tenths of one percent being reported by the Labor Department is the largest in ten months. That's a bigger drop than expected. The core rate, which excludes food and energy, rose a modest two-tenths of one percent. There had been some worry among investors that Tuesday's bigger-than-expected increase in the core Producer Price Index might be followed by a negative surprise.

El Paso Corporation sold its interests in Capitol District Energy Center Cogeneration Associates and Berkshire Power, completing its exit from the domestic power business. Calgary-based Maxim Power is the buyer. CDECCA is a 67-megawatt, gas-fired merchant power plant in Hartford, Connecticut. Berkshire is a 243-megawatt, gas-fire merchant plant in Massachusetts.

NRG Energy plans to build power plants in Texas and the northeast U.S. that may add more than $1.5 billion to the company's value. The New Jersey-based company has a ten-year initiative to boost electricity capacity by 44 percent.

Anadarko Petroleum has begun producing oil from its project in Bohai Bay, China, eventually having ten wells on line. The project, in about 75 feet of water, consists of a core-area gathering platform and two smaller unmanned satellite platforms, tied back to a floating production, storage and offloading vessel. Development drilling is also underway.

Angleton-based electronics manufacturer Benchmark Electronics has agreed to buy Minnesota-based Pemstar in a $300 million deal. The stock-swap merger still has to be approved by Pemstar shareholders. Pemstar employs around 3,500 worldwide.

Environmental and prison welfare advocates say inmates working for a federal electronics recycling program are subjected to hazardous working conditions. The allegations are contained in a report issued today to coincide with the National Electronic Waste Conference in Austin. The inmates work for Federal Prison Industries. The federally owned company employs prisoners to do everything from building office furniture to making clothes. One of the facilities cited in the report, called "Toxic Sweatshops,'' is in Texarkana. Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment says that recycling electronic waste improperly can expose workers to toxic lead and cadmium. Federal Prison Industries says it follows federal and state health and safety rules. It adds that environmental tests for air quality are conducted regularly and inmates have access to full-face respirators, coveralls and Kevlar sleeves.

A Dallas-area jewelry company that signed people up for credit insurance without their consent must stop the practice and repay customers. The agreement involves Friedman's Jewelers and the attorneys general of Texas and 17 other states. Friedman's also must begin providing clear disclosures of extra insurance charges to customers who apply for credit. Addison-based based Friedman's did not admit fault in the agreement. It wasn't immediately clear how much the settlement will cost Friedman's. An aide to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says the final amount will be based on how many consumers come forward. Friedman's has about 40 stores in Texas and more than 400 nationwide.

Executives at RadioShack think they've found a way to help consumers wondering how to edit digital photos or understand high-def TVs--online classes. Fort Worth-based RadioShack plans a series of free virtual training courses. Consumers can learn about tech topics from digital photography, to choosing and setting up an HD-TV to information about satellite radio. The classes will have staggered start dates beginning this month and in November. Participants who sign up online can take the courses at their own pace--but it shouldn't take more than one month to complete. The hope is that shoppers will use their newfound wisdom to buy products from RadioShack.

Travelers love to complain about airlines. So the carriers are turning to TV to help the public understand the challenges they face in moving people across the country and around the world. Fort Worth-based American Airlines allowed crews from the cable network CNBC behind the ticket counters for a week in August to see how employees keep the jets flying. The result was a two-hour documentary that CNBC scheduled to air on Wednesday. "Inside American Airlines: a Week in the Life'' is a newsier but less entertaining version of the A$E network series "Airline.'' That show follows employees and customers of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. The CNBC documentary explains how different passengers on the same flight often pay wildly different fares. It shows crews scrambling to deal with problems ranging from traffic-snarling thunderstorms to passengers who become ill in flight. It also shows flight attendant training and profiles a man with 31 million frequent flier miles.

Texas Roadhouse is opening a new restaurant on U.S. 59 North on November 13th. This will be the fifth Houston-area outlet.

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...