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"A year ago we thought $70 would be the death knell for consumers. It wasn't." -- Steven Goldman, chief market strategist for Weeden & Co., expressing optimism to the AP despite oil prices surpassing $71 a barrel

Lured by falling share prices and mounting cash piles, hedge funds are eyeing some of the nation's biggest homebuilders. The funds want to prevent the housing companies from spending that cash on land, which could lose value fast as the real estate market continues to cool.

"If they are not buying land, which is a precursor to building a home, shareholders are going to want the companies to be more tactical about where that cash should go," says Nicholas Colas, research director at Rochdale Securities and a former analyst at hedge fund SAC Capital. The tactic favored by the hedge fund activists: return the cash to stockholders.

Builders are starting to do that. Just six weeks after New York hedge fund Tontine Partners took a 9.98% stake in Beazer Homes USA (BZH) last October, the Atlanta builder announced an aggressive $200 million to $250 million share repurchase program for 2006. Others with outsize cash hoards, up to 10% to 14% of their market caps, are following suit. Centex in Dallas, Toll Brothers (TOL) in Horsham, Pa., Brookfield Homes (BHS) in Del Mar, Calif., and Pulte Homes (PHM) in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., have all announced plans to buy back shares.

That may keep the activists at bay, but it also suggests that builders, too, see a weaker market ahead.

So you're the NFL, with a 2 1/2-year-old cable channel seen by only a third of the nation's 90 million homes with cable and satellite. What do you do? You draft smart, of course, and hope to create buzz.

On Apr. 26, the NFL Network is expected to announce at its programming presentation to advertisers that it has hired TV veteran Bryant Gumbel and former wide receiver-turned-commentator Cris Collinsworth to call its first-time package of NFL games, BusinessWeek has learned.

It's a bold move. Gumbel, who has presided for a decade over HBO's (TWX) Emmy-winning monthly show, Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, hasn't been in a booth since his early days at NBC Sports. He could not be reached for comment, but sources say the league is hoping his marquee name will attract viewers and persuade distributors to carry its network. An NFL Network spokesman declined comment. Collinsworth, a former Cincinnati Bengal, will also be part of the new football broadcast team at NBC, which will air NFL games as well.

The new NFL Network package, a series of eight games on Thursdays and Saturdays, will debut on Thanksgiving night.

For those pondering the current engineering gap between the U.S. and Asia, there's this:

On Apr. 18, Carnegie Mellon University unveiled a statue of the first engineering PhD to graduate from what was then the Carnegie Institute of Technology back in 1911. "His career illustrates Carnegie Mellon's global reach and adds further luster to its history," said university President Jared Cohon. The man commemorated: one Mao Yisheng, who returned to his native China to design two famous bridges, Beijing's Great Hall of the People, and new engineering courses.

Advertisers usually pay an ad agency to fix their brands. But Haggar Clothing, bought by private equity investors last fall, has decided that a business partnership with hot shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky is even better. The award-winning Miami agency is trading its work for an undisclosed piece of Haggar. Crispin President Jeff Hicks says he wants to "put some of the agency's skin" into turning around brands, noting that Adidas (ADDDY), Converse (NKE), and Burger King started their turnarounds with private equity. (One of Haggar's backers, Infinity Associates, bought Converse, fixed the brand, and sold it to Nike (NKE).

Haggar Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Croncota says he chose Crispin after seeing its ad for Mini Cooper cars on a billboard ("The SUV Backlash Starts Now"). "I love that they aren't part of the fashion agency mafia," says Croncota, once chief marketer for Versace. During the dot-com boom, a lot of agencies traded work for stock or options from Web startups, and many were left holding wallpaper.

And a few ad shops doing sweat equity deals with private equity firms had to sue for the payoff. Hicks says he's confident he won't be plastering the walls with promissories. For now, he's wearing free Haggar pants around the office.

Corrections and Clarifications

In "Real skin in the (ad) game" (Up Front, May 1), Haggar Clothing Co. Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Croncota was quoted saying about ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, "I love that they aren't part of the fashion agency mafia." Croncota contends that he did not use the word "mafia."

When Terrence Malick's The New World opens this week in Japan, viewers in "aroma premier" seats at two theaters, in Tokyo and Osaka, will be showered with scent as they watch the film about early America. NTT Communications, which sells computer-driven gizmos that dispense fragrances with a click of the mouse, will have machines release aromas during emotional scenes. Think lavender for romance, patchouli for anger. It's not a cinematic first. (In 1960, Scent of Mystery was shown in "Smell-O-Vision" in the U.S.) Still, NTT says that Japanese hotels and venues in a half-dozen countries have asked for a demo of the system.

thetruthaboutcars.com

WHY READ IT

For a vulture's view of the auto industry, highlighted by the long-running "General Motors (GM) Death Watch" by Robert Farago and others.

NOTABLE POST

Even without considering the cost of an auto-show stand or the expense of going to one, the Internet is 175% more efficient... If the organizers of the New York International Auto Show could suck a buck from every one of the Web heads who check in on their vapid display of automobiles-in-aspic, they'd make enough money to pay for post-traumatic show disorder therapy -- for everyone!"

Supported by increasingly friendly environments, 74% of gay and lesbian employees say they are completely out at work, according to a survey of Lambda Legal's online community members. Another 15% of the 1,205 people in the poll, released by Lambda Legal and Deloitte Financial Advisory Services on Apr. 5, say they have told selected co-workers (but not supervisors) about their sexual orientation. In a 2003 survey conducted by the Human Rights Campaign and Harris Interactive, only 47% of respondents reported being out at work. The growing openness parallels a shift in corporate attitudes and policies. Of the 500 largest U.S. companies, for example, 249 offer domestic-partnership benefits today, up from 28 a decade ago.

But the comfort zone still varies by profession, income, and region. Legal, health-care, and media employees feel freest to be out. Workers making under $50,000 are less likely to be open, as are those in mid-Atlantic, Southern, and Mountain states.

We've heard about the charity, insurance, and procurement fraud surrounding the post-Katrina recovery effort. Less noticed have been the abuses of wage-and-hour laws suffered by some of the thousands of workers who have poured into the three afflicted Gulf states. The pay violations have prompted the Labor Dept. to join the Justice Dept.'s Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force in the hope that federal watchdogs on the lookout for fraud will keep their eyes open for employee ripoffs and prosecute offenders. (President Bush suspended "prevailing wages" rules after Katrina struck, then reinstated them a few months later, in November, 2005.)

Many of the laborers involved in the Gulf Coast rebuilding are Mexican immigrants who speak little or no English and are unaware of wage laws. "This seemed like a situation ripe for the exploitation of workers, and the task force helps us to connect to other enforcement efforts going on there," says Victoria Lipnic, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment Standards. Before joining Justice's antifraud group, the department had collected $289,000 in back pay for 300 Katrina workers who weren't paid properly. And Lipnic says her agency is pursuing 190 more cases involving several thousand workers. Labor had 18 inspectors in Gulf Coast offices before the storm and will add 8 to 10 more this year, including Spanish speakers.


Toyota's Hydrogen Man
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