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If you blinked, you missed some wacky business news

Covering the news of business and sports these days is increasingly alike. Take your eye off the subject and, in the blink of a Carlos Pena home run, you've missed the economic play of the day.

That's how it felt this past week, with some head-snappin' economic buzz and some plain old business surprises. Hence this countdown:

10. Here's one to startle right off the bat. Friday's news was that Florida was No. 1 among states in job losses in July (a loss of 21,400) and the past year (lost 96,800, about twice that of runnerup job loser Michigan). Ouch!

9. The second part of the one-two jobs punch? Florida's July unemployment rate jumped to 6.1 percent, its highest level in 13 years. And Tampa Bay unemployment skyrocketed to 6.6 percent, up — a lot in just 30 days — from 5.9 percent in June. Double ouch!

8. Did Allstate's happy twin just show up in Florida? The insurance company that policyholders loved to dis, Allstate cut a deal Friday with Florida regulators that (drum roll) would lower all homeowners insurance rates in the state by 5.6 percent (no way!), require Allstate to pay a $5-million fine for disregarding state law and (gasp!) require the insurer to write 100,000 new policies, including 50,000 basic homeowners policies and 50,000 condominium, renters and other residential policies, over the next three years. All this — agreed to in the middle of hurricane season.

7. Say it ain't so, Mrs. Fields. It's Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for Mrs. Fields Famous Brands LLC, which serves up fresh-baked cookies and TCBY frozen yogurt at more than 1,200 franchises across the country. The brand was born in 1977, when Debbi Fields opened up her first cookie shop in Palo Alto, Calif. But shareholders of Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse (now OSI Restaurant Partners) enjoyed years of Debbi Fields showing up in eye-popping outfits at annual meetings as a member of the restaurant company's board of directors.

6. Holy gas price decline! There. I had to say that while the price of gas was still heading south, because it may not last. Regular unleaded cracked the $4-a-gallon mark, peaking July 16 at $4.009 on average, in the Tampa Bay area. It finished this past week at $3.709 for a whopping 30-cent-per-gallon drop in just a month later. A fabulous break for the wallet. We need it.

5. Nasty inflation took a chunk of our flesh. The cost of living, led by the soaring cost of gasoline and food, rose at the fastest rate since the recession of the early 1990s. The practical effect: Most of us got a de facto pay cut because almost everything costs more, even as we have less money to pay for it.

4. We all started driving less last fall, but we're doing even less cruising now. In all, U.S. drivers drove 12.2-billion fewer miles in June than a year earlier, the biggest monthly decrease in a downward trend that began in November. And who's driving a lot less? People in Florida. If the country overall drove 4.7 percent less, drivers in Florida drove 6 percent less. The feds, who monitor this stuff, think it's because more drivers in Florida are tourists and do "discretionary" driving. That's why it's easier for them to cut back. (I'm not sure the roads feel any less busy, but why quibble?)

3. We've seen Disney on Ice. But Disney in Cuffs? People dressed as Cinderella and Snow White, among other fictional icons, were handcuffed, frisked and loaded into police vans during a labor protest outside Disneyland. Sure it was in California, but all the kids saw on TV was Tinkerbell headed for the hoosegow. Orlando's Magic Kingdom briefly shuddered.

2. Maybe Publix should be called Juggernaut Super Markets. It's forking over about half a billion dollars for 49 Albertsons stores, even though Cerberus Capital Management bought 655 Albertsons two years ago for $1.1-billion. Why the lopsided price tag? Because Publix paid for the existing Albertson locations, plus the right to deny those prime sites to any other competitor.

1. At No. 1: our housing market, of course. Lots of rough-on-the-eyes data came out last week, but Zillow market researchers prove the winner. Nationally, for folks who purchased their home since the beginning of 2003, nearly one in three now have negative equity. The highest rates of negative equity are among those who purchased in 2006, when most markets peaked, as 45 percent of those buyers now face negative equity even with a 10 percent down payment. And for those who bought in 2006 in Tampa Bay? Well, for 71.7 percent of you, your mortgage is now worth more than your home. Hang in there.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

If you blinked, you missed some wacky business news 08/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 12:40pm]
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