Merrill Lynch & Co. has become the first institution to offer financial services through Microsoft's recently launched MSN MoneyCentral Web site.

Merrill is leasing space on the site, which combines three formerly separate sites-home.microsoft.com, msn.com, and hotmail.com.-for an undisclosed price. The brokerage giant is one of five financial institutions expected eventually to take places on the MoneyCentral home page, said Lewis Levin, vice president of Microsoft's desktop finance division.

Such space-leasing on Internet gateway or portal sites is gaining popularity. Citibank, for example, has a prime location on Netscape Communications Corp.'s NetCenter.

Mr. Levin said MoneyCentral is "distinctive among portals."

He said home pages and portions of content can be customized; financial content could appear on Microsoft's main MSN page, if desired, giving it the same high profile as an e-mail in-box.

"We believe the best sites are those that enable people to do real tasks," said Mr. Levin. "We want financial institutions to do the same with their content modules and over time make them more interactive."

Research from Merrill Lynch analysts will be available to anyone with Internet access.

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