J.P. Morgan & Co. has been hired by Barclays PLC to advise the British bank on its future, including a possible merger.

Officials at the New York bank had no comment, but a source at Morgan confirmed the advisory role.

Speculation has centered on a possible merger with National Westminster PLC, another big British bank that, like Barclays, has spent heavily to get into investment banking with little to show for its efforts. Barclays last week sold most of its investment banking business to Credit Suisse First Boston while Natwest is said to be seeking a buyer for the same purpose.

A merger between two of Britain's banking heavyweights would be expensive; Natwest has a market capitalization of $25.3 billion. And it would come under heavy scrutiny from Britain's antitrust regulators.

"It's not certain whether a deal involving Barclays will ever happen or even be allowed," a source at Morgan said.

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