Thursday AM February 21st, 2008

Applications for new home construction fell sharply in January...Increases in food and health care costs push consumer prices up more than expected in January...Texas ranchers say beef recall involves animal treatment that's not typical in the industry...

The Commerce Department says applications for future new home construction fell sharply in January, though there was a modest increase in construction last month. The Commerce Department says construction of new homes and apartments rose by eighth-tenths of one percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of just over a million units. That's the first increase since October and followed a plunge of 14.8 percent in December. Applications for new construction, considered a good sign of where construction is headed, fell by three percent. That translates to just over one million units, the lowest level since November 1991. That was viewed as evidence that the nation's troubled housing sector has yet to hit bottom.


The Labor Department says big increases in the cost of food and health care pushed consumer prices up more than expected in January. Energy prices also were up. The Labor Department says its Consumer Price Index posted a gain of four-tenths of one percent last month, matching the December increase. Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, showed an increase of three-tenths of one percent. That was the biggest jump in this measure in seven months. Energy prices rose one percent in the Houston area, according to the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics Regional Commissioner Stan Suchman.

"The one percent increase in the energy index was largely the result of higher motor fuel costs, as the gasoline index rose 1.7 percent in January. During the last year, gasoline prices climbed 36.7 percent."

The inflation readings are certain to attract the attention of the Federal Reserve, which has been cutting interest rates aggressively to ward off a recession. The Fed has said that it believes the sharp economic slowdown would keep inflation pressures from rising.


The credit crunch is putting a squeeze on the number of education loans available to students. The development could open the door for some banks to pick up market share in the loan market, but it may lead to higher rates for students who are borrowing. Smaller student lenders have been forced to scale back their operations because their ability to sell loan packages to Wall Street has been hampered. Meanwhile, bigger ones like Sallie Mae have more resources to continue lending. Despite a sharp reduction in interest rates recently, the reduced supply of available cash is expected to make loans more expensive for students. College administrators say lower-income students will feel the brunt of it. Both federally guaranteed student loans and higher-priced private loans are being affected.


ExxonMobil says it has a plan to produce natural gas from disputed leases on Alaska's North Slope considered vital to a successful natural gas pipeline project. The Irving-based oil giant says it's submitted a development plan to Alaska's Department of Natural Resources. ExxonMobil has a court-ordered hearing with the Natural Resources Department next month. The series of North Slope leases have been in dispute since the fall of 2005. Alaska says the company has not done enough to develop the area, which has more than 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves.


Developers say carbon dioxide from a proposed coal-fired power plant would be captured and then used to pump more oil from Texas' Permian Basin. Tenaska Incorporated of Omaha says it is developing a 1,919-acre parcel east of Sweetwater to build a 600 megawatt power plant. Tenaska says new technology would let the plant recover up to 90 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions and sell it to oil companies that would pipe it underground to help recover oil. Carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants are believed to contribute to global warming. The company filed an air permit application Tuesday with Texas authorities. Tenaska says its final decision on the $3 billion project will be made next year.


Belgium-based Exmar Offshore has contracted with LoneStar Marine Shelters of Galveston to design and fabricate a living quarters, control room, helideck and workshop/storage building for their $300 million deepwater semisubmersible floating production platform. The platform hull is under construction at Samsung Heavy Industries in South Korea.


Some Texas ranchers and analysts say the current massive beef recall involves animal treatment that's not typical in the industry. The Associated Press reports most of those cattle raisers believe it's unlikely the beef recall--the largest ever in the U.S.--will impact markets for ground beef. Undercover video taken at Westland/Hallmark Meat of Chino, California, shows workers shocking, kicking and shoving debilitated cattle with forklifts. That's prompted the government to pull more than 71,000 tons of beef. Texas Beef Council Executive Vice President Richard Wortham says the animals are the most important thing and as you look at that video--it paints the industry with a "black eye." Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association Executive Vice President Eldon White says the California plant processes dairy cows and the meat doesn't enter the retail market. White says schools were the buyers. White says he's sure there will be processors that will move quickly to fill the void. AP reports 462 Texas districts and other entities enrolled in the school breakfast and lunch programs reported they had meat that was subject to the recall. Two former employees at the California plant have been charged.


New research from LSU says dire predictions about the long-term health of fish species in the Gulf of Mexico and worldwide may be overblown. Details are in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. The research found several recent high-profile studies have used misleading data to show that the world's wild fish populations could face total collapse within decades. The authors acknowledge that many species are in danger, including the Gulf's red snapper, but they say painting too broad a picture undermines the credibility of the predictions. LSU researchers say fishing pressure and demand for certain fish can vary widely from year to year.


Now that the HD DVD is the official loser in the format battle, major content providers are shifting attention to the rival, Blu-Ray standard. Universal Studios, one of the two major studios that was putting out HD DVDs, says it will focus on the Blu-Ray format. The news follows the announcement Tuesday by Toshiba, creator of the HD DVD, that it would stop making players for the discs. Universal and Paramount were the two major Hollywood studios that supported HD DVD, while Sony Pictures, Walt Disney and Twentieth Century Fox are in the Blu-Ray camp. In a statement, Universal did not say how long it would keep putting out HD DVDs or what it would do with its inventory. Toshiba said about one million HD DVD players were sold worldwide.


ExxonMobil hosted "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" on Wednesday for 60 Middle School students from nine Houston-area private schools. The program at ExxonMobil's downtown location is to encourage girls to pursue a career in engineering. They participated in science experiments, watched demonstrations and discussed career options with women engineers.


The Offshore Energy Center has a new traveling energy education exhibit that will first be displayed at Piney Point Elementary School on Pagewood this morning. Six self-contained learning centers will offer hands-on, curriculum-based materials aligned to Texas science standards.


Rising computer sales have sparked a 38 percent increase in first-quarter profit for Hewlett-Packard. The figures are coming in above analyst expectations. HP made $2.13 billion for the three months ended in January. It also lifted the earnings outlook for the full fiscal year. One research analyst is cautioning against using HP as a gauge for the entire tech industry. He says the company's performance is due to its extensive reach beyond the troubled American market.


Soft drink and snack maker Pepsico says its 2008 profit outlook is unchanged from a previous forecast. The owner of the Plano-based Frito-Lay snack business says it plans to buy back $4.3 billion in shares this year. Pepsico also says it expects full-year cash from operating activities to be about $7.6 billion and capital spending to be about 2.7 billion.

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...