Tuesday PM April 15th, 2008

The deadline to file a federal income tax return is just a matter of hours away. It must be filed no later than today. If that's not possible, taxpayers need to file form 4868, which provides an automatic six-month extension. An extension does not keep people from paying the taxes owed by today's deadline. Failure to pay means that interest and possible penalties can pile up, adding to the total amount owed. A delay in filing a tax return will also delay payments for those qualified for economic stimulus payments. Filing of a return is necessary for those who qualify for the payments, set to begin going out next month.

After months of speculation and negotiation, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines plan to merge into the world's biggest airline. But there are several hurdles before the carriers could combine into one proposed giant, Delta Air. They'll need antitrust approval from federal regulators and the support of their labor force. An attempted merger of United Airlines and US Airways fell apart amid antitrust concerns in 2001. And two of northwest's largest unions are already signaling their opposition. If the share-swap becomes final, Delta shareholders get a bigger company, while Northwest shareholders get a 16.8 percent premium over Monday's closing stock prices. Based on those prices, the deal values Northwest at more than $3.6 billion.

The Justice Department pledges to take a look at how the proposed merger of Northwest and Delta will affect consumers. But analysts see the deal eventually winning regulatory approval. The airlines say they want to complete the transaction by year end, in the closing window provided by the presence of the Bush administration, which is seen as largely merger friendly. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to say when the department would review the deal. Experts say there's little overlap in the routes served by Northwest and Delta. That, combined with the recent bankruptcy filings by four smaller carriers, is seen boosting the chances that regulators will give their blessing. The Air Line Pilots Association says its members will fight the merger unless management meets or exceeds pilot demands, which include restoring salaries conceded a few years ago.

Continental Airlines sent letters to the company's 45,000 employees following the Delta-Northwest merger, saying that deal will change the competitive landscape for the industry. Continental CEO Larry Kellner has said the airline prefers to remain independent, but if the industry landscape changes, it would do what is in the best interest of its stakeholders. Reuters reports that Continental and Chicago-based United have laid most of the groundwork for a merger and sources close to the matter say a deal could happen "pretty quickly." The Air Line Pilots Association says if a merger benefits executives, Wall Street and others at the expense of pilots, airline employees and the public, it will use all lawful means necessary to ensure the merger is unsuccessful.

Property sales in Houston dropped for the seventh consecutive month in March, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. But sales of single-family homes edged up to the highest level so far this year. Sales of all property types registered a 17.3 percent drop compared to March 2007. Sales volume was at $1.2 billion, compared to $1.4 billion in the same month last year—a 16.7 percent decline. The average price of homes grew by two percent, compared to the same month last year, to $208,105. The median price was flat at $151,000. HAR says Houston continues to fare better than the rest of the country, and notes that April employment figures show strong, sustainable job growth.

Hilton Americas-Houston is for sale, according to the Houston Chronicle. CB Richard Ellis has been hired to sell the property and seek development proposals for a second convention hotel. Analysts expect the downtown hotel could sell for $350 million. The second hotel could be built on a parcel north of Discovery Green. Meeting planners seek hotel rooms in close proximity to conventions.

The consumer's nightmare of rising oil and gasoline prices shows no sign of letting up. Crude oil futures prices ended higher, and at a new record, on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The near-month contract for the benchmark grade rose $2.03--closing at $113.79 a barrel. Meanwhile, retail gasoline prices rose to a new average national record of nearly $3.39, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service.

President Bush is again calling on lawmakers to make his tax cuts permanent. And he's looking ahead to the checks that will be sent out to American taxpayers in about a month, as a result of the economic stimulus package. Bush says the checks will help the economy recover and "add confidence and hope.'' As he talked with members of his cabinet about the troubled economy, Bush said his administration has set up programs to help more homeowners stay in their homes. But he said Congress needs to modernize the Federal Housing Administration and make more changes that will encourage the housing market to turn around.

A new study concludes that divorce and unwed parenting are costing taxpayers $112 billion a year. The study was commissioned by four groups that advocate more government action to bolster marriages. The study's calculations are based on the assumption that households headed by single females have relatively high poverty rates, leading to more government spending on welfare, health care, criminal justice and education. The author of the study says the costs are a legitimate reason lawmakers should be concerned about family issues. He suggests offering more money for programs intended to bolster marriages. Still, one economics professor says he doesn't see convincing evidence that such programs work.

The nation's largest seller of firearms says it will toughen rules for gun sales, from storing video of purchases to creating an internal log of which guns they sell that are later used in crimes. The chief compliance officer for Wal-Mart appeared with gun control advocate Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York to announce the changes at a gathering of Bloomberg's group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Changes at the stores that sell guns will include the creation of a record and alert system to record when a gun sold at Wal-Mart is later used in a crime. It will also include expanding background checks of employees who handle guns and expanding inventory controls. Bloomberg is urging other companies to join Wal-Mart in the initiative called the Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership.


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