The Justice Department on Friday said it will not challenge the BankAmerica Corp.-NationsBank Corp. merger on antitrust grounds after the companies agreed to divest 17 branches in New Mexico.

"This settlement preserves the competitive choice for small businesses and other consumers in New Mexico who would have been harmed by this merger," said Joel I. Klein, assistant attorney general for antitrust. "Those consumers will continue to enjoy the most competitive loan rates and the best banking services."

All but two of the branches are in Albuquerque. The 17 branches, which have $492 million of deposits, must be sold to a "competitively suitable" bank. The merger partners also may not bar competitors from buying or leasing other branches that they close.

The Federal Reserve Board is expected to approve the $60 billion deal today, and the merger is expected to close by Oct. 1. The new BankAmerica will have $570 billion of assets, 5,000 branches, and 15,000 automated teller machines.

Separately, Seafirst Bank, Seattle, said it would drop its name after BankAmerica, its parent, and NationsBank complete their merger at the end of the quarter.

In a letter to employees Friday, Seafirst chairman and chief executive officer John V. Rindlaub said BankAmerica's Pacific Northwest unit would operate under the same moniker as other subsidiaries of the merged company.

When they announced their merger in April, BankAmerica and NationsBank said the resulting $570 billion-asset holding company would be called BankAmerica. But the name that would appear on branches, products, and services is still being hashed out, with the help of a New York corporate identity consulting firm.

Seafirst, which has operated under eight names since it was chartered in 1870, has had the current one since 1974. When BankAmerica acquired it in 1983, the Seafirst name was so well-recognized in the Pacific Northwest that the San Francisco-based banking company decided to retain it.

- Jaret Seiberg and Olaf de Senerpont Domis

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