A late shopping surge apparently failed to salvage the slowest-growing holiday sales season in five years. Sales the week of Dec. 17 rose a slim 2.8 percent compared with the same week last year, the International Council of Shopping Centers and UBS Securities L.L.C. said in a joint statement Wednesday. That prompted them to lower their forecast for combined November and December sales growth to "a tad below" the 2.5 percent they had been predicting. Their figures are for sales at stores open at least a year, a key industry yardstick. "This consumer is spent out," Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a New York retail consultant, said in an interview. Official tallies will be released this coming week by major retailers and by the government later in January. See:

Late tweak to tax laws may delay some refunds

More than three million people will have to wait until February to get their tax refunds because of Congress' late changes to the alternative minimum tax, the IRS said Thursday. Congress put a one-year freeze on growth of the alternative minimum tax the week of Dec. 17, shielding many middle- and upper-middle-income taxpayers from exposure to the tax. But the late action means the Internal Revenue Service will not be able to start processing five AMT-related forms until February, delaying potential refunds for those people until that month. The IRS was able to reprogram its computers to begin accepting seven other AMT-related forms when the tax season opens in early January. But the tax packages that will start arriving in the mail after New Year's Day were printed in November, before the AMT fixes were approved by Congress. The IRS has created a special section on its Web site,

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, with updated copies of AMT forms. The alternative minimum tax was passed in 1969 and was aimed at that time at about 155 high-income households that used deductions to avoid paying any federal income tax. The AMT disallows certain deductions and credits. Its thresholds have not risen with inflation; as a result, over the years, it has hit a growing number of middle-income taxpayers. See:

Coming tomorrow

Why Sunoco Inc. worries as much about crude-oil prices as motorists do.

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