Merrill Lynch & Co., moving deeper into traditional bank terrain, on Thursday said it plans to commit $159 million in loans and outreach services for companies and individuals in Asian, Latino, and African-American areas in California.

The firm for years has courted small business customers, but the new initiative, an extension of a mid-1990s pilot program in Los Angeles and Orange counties, underscores Merrill's determination to capture traditional banking clients using its brand name as an adviser and broker.

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