WASHINGTON Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Ridge signed a law last week allowing state banks to sell insurance for the first time. MORTGAGES Subprime lender First Alliance is buying a small California thrift so it can issue a credit card secured by home equity. COMMUNITY BANKING FIRST FINANCIAL Bancorp wants to flex its muscle in the competitive northwestern Ohio market and is using a rival's branches to help accomplish its goal. INVESTMENT PRODUCTS Massachusetts Financial Services, one of the nation's oldest mutual fund firms, teamed up with the IBAA to offer 401(k) plans to small-business customers. REGIONAL BANKING Great Western Financial's CEO John F. Maher is no stranger to a hostile takeover battle. His experience as an investment banker seems to have been a key aid in the thrift's successful defense against H.F. Ahmanson's hostile overture. "It had to make a difference," he says. CORPORATE FINANCE J.P. Morgan, rising rapidly as an underwriter of investment-grade bonds, is leading a $700 million issue for British Aerospace Finance. CREDIT/DEBIT/ATMs The average point of sale transaction shrank last year as more small merchants started accepting cards. TECHNOLOGY EDI SOFTWARE developer TSI International filed for an initial public offering expected to raise as much as $27 million. UNCLE SAM's loosening of cryptography regulations bore fruit last week for Microsoft and Netscape. MARKET MONITOR Even with banking and financial stocks at unprecedented heights, short- sellers have been unwilling to bet against the sector. The current sentiment on Wall Street is that Fed policymakers will probably not raise interest rates this week, as much as they might like to do so. WEEKLY REPORT: SMALL BUSINESS Wells teamed with one of the largest small-business trade groups to sell medical savings accounts. With California cluttered with banks vying for small-business loans, Washington State is shaping up as the next battleground for lenders.

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