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Briefs (right)

10,000 Get Grant Letters on
Rebuilding in Louisiana

By Leslie Eaton

In a sign of painstaking progress for Louisiana’s biggest rebuilding program, the state has sent letters to more than 10,000 families stating how much money they can receive to rebuild their homes under the $7.5 billion housing program Congress financed this year, state officials said Thursday.

But fewer than 50 families had actually collected the money as of Tuesday, prompting renewed concern among homeowners and some government officials about the pace of the program, which is called the Road Home and is widely considered the most important factor in rebuilding areas damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The spate of “award calculations,” as the program calls them, represents a big increase from early last month, when fewer than 2,000 families — out of almost 79,000 applicants at the time — had been told how much they were eligible to receive.

On Nov. 6, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco ordered the private contractor managing the program for the state to reach the 10,000 mark by the end of November. On Thursday, the governor said she would require the contractor, ICF International, to send out 15,000 more award letters before the end of the year.

“The Road Home program is making progress, but I will not rest until 100 percent of our homeowners receive the money that we have made available to them,” Blanco said in a statement.

The awards, which are based on the value of a house before the storm and are capped at $150,000, are reduced by the amount of money homeowners receive under their insurance policies. ICF says it has been slowed by the difficulty of getting information from insurance companies and is now sending out award letters without waiting for insurers’ verification. This decision has speeded up the process but may mean that the size of the awards will be adjusted before homeowners receive them.

The number of homeowners who have actually received Road Home grants has increased by just 26 in the last month, to a total of 48. Those homeowners received an average grant of $50,715, according to the most recent statistics from the program.

Pfizer Likely to Seek Approval of
New Heart Drug in 2007

By Alex Berenson

Pfizer executives told investors Thursday that they hoped to ask federal regulators next year to approve torcetrapib, a heart drug crucial to the company’s future, despite evidence that the drug increases blood pressure.

Pfizer also slightly raised its profit projections for 2006, while promising that it would triple the number of drug compounds in late-stage development by 2009 and introduce four new medicines a year beginning in 2011.

In addition, Pfizer said it would make it easier for the public to track its development program by offering twice-a-year updates on the progress of almost all the drugs in its pipeline.

Shares in Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, rose 42 cents, to $27.49.

Jami Rubin, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, said that investors were hoping that Jeffrey B. Kindler, Pfizer’s new chief executive, would be able to cut costs while freeing the company’s scientists to bring drugs to market more quickly.

Still, Pfizer shares are trading at a lower price-earnings multiple than other big drug stocks, a sign that investors believe Kindler has a difficult road ahead, Rubin said.

“Pfizer is an incredibly-low-expectations story,” she said.

Pfizer estimated that it would earn at least $2.05 a share in “adjusted diluted” earnings for 2006, a nonstandard measure of earnings that excludes certain charges, compared with its earlier estimate of at least $2 a share. Using standard accounting rules, Pfizer projected earnings of at least $1.68 a share.

Home Prices are
Slowest Since 1998

By Vikas Bajaj

Home prices rose in the third quarter at their slowest pace since 1998, and were essentially flat when adjusted for inflation, according to a government price index released Thursday.

The data suggest that prices, especially for the existing single-family homes that the index focuses on, continue to weaken across much of the country and particularly in formerly hot coastal markets. Nationally, prices rose 0.86 percent from the second quarter and 7.73 percent from the third quarter of 2005.

Prices fell in five states, including New York and Massachusetts, and in 15 of California’s 25 metropolitan areas, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight reported. Nationally, prices declined for the third quarter in 92 of 379 metropolitan areas, up from 87 in the second quarter.

“We have a pretty clear evidence — if anyone was confused about it — that prices have decelerated in most parts of the country,” said Patrick J. Lawler, chief economist for the agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the large mortgage buyers. “But we are not looking at a bubble bursting across the country.”

The biggest declines were seen in cities in the Midwest, where manufacturers have been laying off workers. Among states, prices fell 0.52 percent in Michigan and in four Northeast states — New York (0.33 percent), Massachusetts (0.49 percent), New Hampshire (0.14 percent) and Rhode Island (0.37 percent).

Still, several pockets of strong growth remained. Five Western states — Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Arizona and Washington — had the biggest price increases, ranging from 1 percent to 4.7 percent. And on the Gulf Coast, a shortage of housing and the slow pace of rebuilding sent home prices soaring in markets that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Prices rose 15.8 percent from a year earlier in New Orleans, 23.3 percent in Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss., and 17.5 percent in Mobile, Ala.