A published account Monday named First Union Corp. as a likely acquirer of Money Store Inc.

Neither Union, N.J.-based Money Store nor the Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company would comment on the speculation, which appeared in a daily newsletter of SNL Securities, Charlottesville, Va.

However, Money Store confirmed earlier reports that it had retained Prudential Securities Inc. to evaluate strategic alternatives.

Marc Turletaub, Money Store's chairman and chief executive officer, said it was "prudent" to explore such alternatives as a sale or merger.

Money Store, which originated $5.9 billion last year, is among the largest home equity lenders. First Union is the fifth-largest home equity lender among banks, with $2.4 billion of loans outstanding last June 30, according to Sheshunoff Information Services.

Money Store is also the largest Small Business Administration lender nationwide, according to the SBA. First Union ranks 43d on the SBA's list.

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