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British Telecommunications PLC and AT&T Corp. have completed the purchase of a $1.9 billion stake in Japan Telecom Co., marking a further step in the consolidation of the global telephone industry.

The deal, which should strengthen the Japanese company's offering of phone and Internet services, was completed two months ahead of schedule, the companies said.

Under the partnership arrangement, first announced in April, the British and U.S. companies together will own 30 percent of Japan Telecom, the third-largest long-distance phone company in Japan. BT and AT&T will each have 15 percent voting rights in the Japanese firm, said Phil Coathup, an AT&T spokesman.

The joint purchase is the first by BT and AT&T since the two companies announced plans last summer to form a $11 billion venture for selling services to multinational firms.

"This is an important milestone . . . It positions us for strong growth in the data, mobile and Internet sectors in Japan," BT chief executive Sir Peter Bonfield said in a statement.

BT is Britain's biggest phone company, and AT&T is the largest long-distance and international carrier in the United States.

The deal comes in the wake of several other mergers and consolidations in the world's phone and Internet industry.

And in the United States, U S West Inc. is merging with Qwest Communications International Inc. in what could become a major rival to AT&T.

Top hog growers to merge
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- The nation's two largest hog growers announced a $290 million merger, a shakeout from last year's rock-bottom producer pork prices.

Smithfield Foods Inc., of Smithfield, Va., the world's largest hog producer and processor, agreed to buy No. 2 producer Murphy Family Farms of Rose Hill.

The purchase involves about 10 million shares of Smithfield Foods plus the assumption of about $170 million in Murphy Farms debt and other liabilities.

Murphy Family Farms, which specializes in raising hogs under contracts with independent farmers, struggled in the past year as pork prices hit the lowest prices in decades, said Kelly Zering, a North Carolina State University professor of agricultural resource economics.

Founder and chief executive officer Wendell H. Murphy signed a letter of intent to sell his family-owned company to Smithfield, effective Jan. 1. Forbes magazine ranked it No. 355 on its 1998 list of privately held companies, with an estimated $650 million in sales.

Smithfield Foods, with $3.77 billion in sales for the year ended in April, will control 60 percent of the merged business operations from research and raising hogs to processing and distribution.

NatWest to buy Legal & General
LONDON (Bloomberg) -- National Westminster Bank Plc, the U.K.'s third-largest bank, is expected to announce today it will pay $17.2 billion for Legal & General Group Plc, the U.K.'s No. 4 insurer.

NatWest said Friday that it was in merger talks with Britain's fourth-largest insurer and asset manager. One person familiar with NatWest's plans said the company is considering paying as much a 9 percent premium to Thursday's price.

The two companies were coming to terms on the transaction this weekend, including the price, the proportion of cash versus shares and who would manage the combined company's divisions, the people said. NatWest and Legal & General declined to comment.

The combined company is likely to be run by a trio of executives: NatWest Chairman David Rowland, the bank's Chief Executive Derek Wanless and Legal & General Chief Executive David Prosser, a person familiar with the situation said.

This week in business
These are the major business and economic events scheduled for this week.

Today -- Labor Day. U.S. financial markets, government offices and banks will be closed. Financial markets will be open in other countries.

Wednesday -- Federal Reserve reports on consumer credit for July.

Thursday -- Labor Department reports on weekly jobless claims.

Friday -- Labor Department reports producer prices for August.

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