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The US justice department was investigating whether Wall Street securities firms conspired to dictate the highly lucrative fees they charge to arrange for the sale of companies' stock. The inquiry comes as the market for new stock offerings is booming. Investment firms earned some $12.5 billion from underwriting in 1997.

Firstar Corp. agreed to acquire Mercantile Bancorp Inc. in a stock swap valued at $10.6 billion, creating one of the three largest banks in the Midwest. The acquisition of St. Louis-based Mercantile comes as Firstar is still integrating a months-old merger of Milwaukee-based Firstar and Star Banc Corp.

Almost two years into the Asian financial crisis, the region's development bank has decided to shift its focus from trying to stimulate economic growth to reducing poverty, officials said. Winding up their annual meeting yesterday in Manila, delegates agreed that years of lending for such projects as dams, highways, and power plants have done almost nothing to lift almost 1 billion people - most of them in rural areas - out of abject living conditions. Last year, the Asian Development Bank loaned $5.9 billion.

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