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News Briefs

Agreement Reached On Pension Bill

The New York Times -- House and Senate negotiators said they had reached an agreement Thursday on a bill that would save companies an estimated $80 billion in pension contributions over the next two years.

Airlines and steel companies, which have some of the weakest pension plans, would get an additional break, worth about $1.6 billion.

The measure offers all employers with pension plans a break by changing the way they calculate, in today’s dollars, the value of the benefits that they must pay in the future. The new method will make their future pension obligations look smaller. That, in turn, means they will not have to set aside as much money today.

A second provision offers relief to the major airlines and to steel companies. Their pension funds are so badly eroded that they are becoming subject to a special set of funding rules, under which companies with very unhealthy pension plans have to make large, quarterly contributions to revive them. As currently written, the bill would allow the airlines and steel companies to pay only 20 percent of what they would otherwise owe in these special catch-up contributions.

For Americans, Gas Guzzlers Are Again Kings Of The Road

The New York Times -- DETROIT

Gasoline prices may be at an all-time high, but that is not deterring Americans from buying gas guzzlers.

Maintaining a trend that dates back more than a decade, American buyers continued to shift from passenger cars to the largest and least fuel-efficient new vehicles that auto manufacturers offer, even as gasoline prices soar, according to the industry’s March sales reports.

National average pump prices hit $1.76 a gallon on Monday, the highest on record, according to the Energy Information Administration. But when inflation is taken into account, gasoline remains cheaper than it was in 1981, when prices peaked at just under $3 a gallon in 2004 dollars.

Large pickup trucks, large sport utility vehicles and luxury vehicles of all kinds remain favorites of new-car buyers despite their thirst for fuel.

“These three major segments continue to drive overall industry sales,” said George Pipas, chief industry sales analyst at the Ford Motor Co. “Consumers have been unwilling, at this point, to trade off short-term fluctuations and translate that into a different kind of vehicle purchase, in either size or performance.”

Overall, the industry sold 3.75 percent more vehicles last month than it did in March 2003, when consumer concerns about the impending invasion of Iraq helped keep sales sluggish, according to Ward’s AutoInfoBank. The latest monthly sales translate into an annual selling rate of 16.64 million vehicles.