First Union Corp., reaching for nationwide leadership in consumer and small-business lending, has agreed to buy Money Store Inc. for about $2.1 billion.

The deal, the latest in a string of acquisitions by First Union, gives the Charlotte, N.C., powerhouse a big foothold in the market for subprime mortgages, a business that many banks have been struggling to tap. The combined company would easily rank as the largest in the field.

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