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Revamping NM agency

(AP) -- New Mexico's Senate has unanimously approved a proposal to revamp the governing board of a financing agency hit by an audit scandal last year.

The measure changes the makeup of the 11-member board of the New Mexico Finance Authority, which provides low-cost financing for capital improvements by local governments.

The governor and legislative leaders will name eight board members who must meet minimum qualifications.

The Department of Finance and Administration secretary will continue to be a member.

Counties and municipalities each will have one representative on the board, as they do now.

The bill eliminates three cabinet secretaries as board members.

The authority's former controller pleaded guilty last year to forgery and securities fraud for faking a financial audit.

Subcontractor lacked permit

(AP) -- A cable company subcontractor suspected of rupturing a natural gas line before a deadly Kansas City restaurant explosion didn't have an approved permit for the work, city officials said Monday.

Pat Klein, assistant city manager, said excavating without a permit is violation of the municipal code, and can result in a fine of $500, up to six months in jail or both. He said no charge had been filed.

A Gas Energy official said previously that Heartland Midwest reported hitting a natural gas line with an underground borer more than an hour before Tuesday night's explosion.

The blast and ensuing fire leveled JJ's Restaurant near a busy outdoor shopping area called the Country Club Plaza. One person was killed and 15 others were injured.

The next day, Heartland Midwest sought a permit and asked that it take effect retroactively, Klein said.

“Honestly, it's kind of surprising to me,” Klein said. “Getting one after the fact isn't what's supposed to be done.”

Kentucky relief

(AP) -- More than $55.5 million in relief has gone to hundreds of Kentucky homeowners in the national mortgage foreclosure settlement.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said that a recent report from the independent settlement monitor also indicates that mortgage servicers were processing more than $2 million in additional claims for Kentucky borrowers, for a total of $57.5 million.

The statement said the 1,562 borrowers received an average of $35,534 through Dec. 1.

The relief was provided from a $25 billion settlement by Ally/GMAC, Bank of America, Citi, Chase and Wells Fargo.

Conway's office said the information provided by mortgage servicers hasn't been verified by the compliance monitor.

Chase headcount

(Bloomberg) -- JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM), the largest U.S. bank, plans to reduce headcount by as many as 19,000 people in its mortgage and community banking businesses through 2014 as Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon cuts expenses.

The lender, employing about 259,000 people at the end of December, will cut 13,000 to 15,000 jobs in its mortgage unit and 3,000 to 4,000 in community banking excluding home lending through 2014, the company said Tuesday.

Firmwide headcount will shrink by about 4,000 people this year, mainly through attrition and as some people are redeployed to other areas, said Kristin Lemkau, a spokeswoman.

Dimon, 56, is focusing on expense reductions after boosting net income to records for three straight years.

Mortgage profits that drove banks' earnings may fade this year as increased competition keeps the rates on new loans near all-time lows.

Some firms also are cutting jobs after a settlement with U.S. regulators resolved obligations to review foreclosure documents.

Home Depot improvement

(AP) -- Home Depot Inc., the largest U.S. home improvement retailer, said Tuesday its fiscal fourth-quarter net income surged 32 percent, beating expectations, helped by strong U.S. sales and the cleanup related to Superstorm Sandy.

“We ended the year with a strong performance as our business benefited from a continued recovery in the housing market coupled with sales related to repairs in the areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy,” Home Depot CEO Frank Blake said in a statement.

The company said its results were strong across the country.

For the period ended Feb. 3, Home Depot (NYSE: HD) earned $1.02 billion, or 68 cents per share.

That compares with $774 million, or 50 cents per share, a year ago. Revenue climbed 14 percent to $18.25 billion from $16.01 billion.

The chain said that an extra week in the current quarter compared with last year increased its earnings by about 7 cents per share and added approximately $1.2 billion to the current quarter's revenue.

Home Depot estimates Superstorm Sandy added $242 million in sales during the quarter, $112 million more than sales related to Irene in the prior year.

Revenue at stores open at least a year, a key indicator of a retailer's health, increased 7 percent.

In the United States, the figure climbed 7.1 percent.

Its full-year net income rose 17 percent to $4.54 billion, or $3 per share, from $3.88 billion, or $2.47 per share, in the previous year. Annual revenue increased 6 percent to $74.75 billion from $70.4 billion.

Revenue at stores open at least a year rose 4.6 percent, with U.S. results up 4.9 percent.

Stock issue challenge

(Bloomberg) -- CommonWealth REIT jumped the most in four years after activist investor Keith Meister joined forces with real estate investment firm Related Cos. to challenge the company's plan to issue stock to pay off debt.

Related and Meister, who started activist fund Corvex Management LP, bought 9.8 percent of CommonWealth's existing shares and are demanding that the firm abandon its planned offering, according to a regulatory filing Tuesday.

Commonwealth said Monday it would issue 27 million shares of new stock and use the $450 million in proceeds to retire some of its debt.

The stock plunged 12 percent after the announcement.

Meister and Related CEO Jeff Blau project that CommonWealth's real estate assets are currently worth about $40 a share.

Issuing 27 million additional shares will dilute CommonWealth's outstanding shares by more than 30 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

CommonWealth REIT owned $7.3 billion of office and industrial properties as of Dec. 31, with about 54 million square feet in 31 states, Washington, D.C., and Australia, according to its website.

Builder's margin fades

(Bloomberg) -- Persimmon Plc will become more dependent on an improving U.K. mortgage market to generate profit as the homebuilder's ability to widen margins fades, incoming Chief Executive Officer Jeff Fairburn said.

U.K. homebuilders have boosted margins by focusing on higher-end homes and building on discounted land after a slump during the financial crisis caused sales to drop.

Persimmon, the United Kingdom's largest homebuilder by market value, expects its underlying operating margin to reach as much as 17 percent within the next 18 months, up from 4 percent in 2009.

Home completions rose to 9,903 from 9,360 a year ago as Persimmon's net income increased 56 percent to 170.2 million pounds ($258 million).

The company, based in York, England, has the capacity to build as many as 14,000 homes a year, Fairburn said. Persimmon’s home completions peaked in 2006 at 16,701, according to the company.

Selling itself securities

(Bloomberg) -- ATB Investment Management Inc. is taking the unusual step of selling commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBSs) to itself as Canada's market for the debt struggles to revive five years after the global financial crisis.

The wealth-management unit of Edmonton-based bank Alberta Treasury Branches, which oversees C$4.9 billion ($4.8 billion) of assets across six funds, is financing and securitizing mortgages for its own portfolios in a plan to increase its holdings of CMBS from about C$250 million to C$900 million, Sheldon Dyck, ATB Investment's chief investment officer said.

The Canadian market for commercial-mortgage securities stalled in 2007 as the credit crisis swept through North America.

After peaking in 2006 with $4.5 billion, the market has yet to see the recovery experienced in the United States, where issuance is forecast to rise by more than 50 percent to as much as $70 billion in 2013, according to Credit Suisse Group AG (NYSE: CS). Only one public sale of C$240 million was conducted last year.

Final Saudi regulations

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia issued final regulations on real estate financing, leasing and the supervision of financial companies as the kingdom tries to ease a housing shortage by opening up its mortgage market and enacting the first home loans law.

The regulations outlining three of the five laws that make up the package of changes were posted Feb. 24 on the website of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency. Rules on the enforcement of foreclosures and mortgage registrations have yet to be completed.

The changes could increase residential lending to about $32 billion annually, according to estimates by Capitas Group International Ltd., a Saudi company focused on Islamic finance.

The rules will lead to the creation of licensed private mortgage providers as well as a state-run company for refinancing resembling Fannie Mae (OTC: FNMA) and Freddie Mac (OTC: FMCC) in the United States.

Mortgage lenders in Saudi Arabia will be given two years to comply with all new requirements set for mortgage providers.

They also must inform Saudi Arabia's central bank, which will regulate them, of their plans to conform to the regulations within nine months of their enactment, the Saudi Press Agency said Monday.

UK builder acquired

(Bloomberg) -- Oaktree Capital Management LLC has bought U.K. homebuilder Countryside Properties Plc using debt provided by seller Lloyds Banking Group.

Countryside got loans totaling 165 million pounds ($250 million) from the bank, Chairman Andrew Carr-Locke said.

The five-year facilities include a 125 million-pound term loan and a 40 million-pound working capital facility, he said.

Lloyds (NYSE: LYG) took control of Brentwood, U.K.-based Countryside in 2009 as part of a refinancing deal, according to a statement from parent Copthorn Holdings Ltd.

Countryside then raised 363 million pounds of three-year loans with the bank, Copthorn said.

Oaktree Capital will have a majority stake in the business while the family of founder Alan Cherry will have a holding, Carr-Locke said.

Trina gain

(Bloomberg) -- Trina Solar Ltd. shipped 415 megawatts of solar panels in the fourth quarter, a 9.1 percent gain that exceeded its forecast after a surge in sales in China.

Shipments rose from 380.3 megawatts in the third quarter, and were above the Chinese manufacturer's forecast for as much as 400 megawatts, “primarily due to increased sales to China-based customers,” Changzhou, China-based Trina (NYSE: TSL) said Tuesday.

That still came in lower than the 425 megawatts shipped in the same quarter of 2011.

“Pricing has stabilized," Chief Financial Officer Terry Wang said Tuesday. "We're not looking for only market share expansion, now we realize we think about profitability as top priority.”

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