An online joint venture announced Tuesday between Merrill Lynch & Co. and HSBC Holdings PLC gives HSBC a critical new plank in its Internet expansion effort and thrusts Merrill into direct competition with banks worldwide for retail customer business on just about every level.

The companies plan to inject up to $1 billion over five years into the new company, to be named Merrill Lynch HSBC. Its primary mission will be to attract new customers among high-net-worth investors outside the United States.

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