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Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt expressed support Thursday for the creation of a single, independent agency to police the nation's stock markets.

In speech delivered at Columbia University on Thursday night, Levitt gave mild support to a plan in which each exchange would police its own trading, but an umbrella agency would monitor member activities, sales practices and trading between the various markets.

The idea of a single, independent agency has been gaining steam amid a proliferation of smaller alternative markets and the likelihood that the self-regulating New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq Stock Market may change into for-profit businesses.

Mortgage rates edge down in week

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The average interest rate on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages inched down to 7.76 percent this week, marking a second straight weekly decline.

The average was down from 7.82 percent last week and from 7.88 percent two weeks ago, according to a weekly survey released Thursday by Freddie Mac, the mortgage company.

Fifteen-year mortgages, a popular option for refinancing, averaged 7.40 percent this week, down from the average of 7.43 percent last week.

On one-year adjustable-rate mortgages, lenders were asking an average initial rate of 6.19 percent this week, down from 6.22 percent.

Separately, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America said that mortgage loan applications for the week ending Sept. 17 increased 19.8 percent from the previous week and were down 50.4 percent compared to the same week last year.

Microsoft spinning off Expedia unit

REDMOND, Wash. (AP) -- Microsoft announced Thursday that it is spinning off its Internet travel reservation service, Expedia, as a separate company, and that it had filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering of stock.

Expedia is one of the leading travel sites on the Internet, allowing customers to book airline tickets, hotel rooms and other travel needs.

Since going online in October 1996, Expedia has had gross bookings of more than $700 million by more than 860,000 customers, the SEC filing said.

Cummins combining two businesses

COLUMBUS, Ind. (Bloomberg) -- Cummins Engine Co., the world's largest maker of high-power diesel engines, said it's combining its automotive and industrial businesses into a single engine subsidiary to be more competitive and efficient. The company has a plant in Jamestown.

The unit will be headed by F.J "Joe" Loughrey, 49. He's now executive vice president and group president of its industrial unit, which makes engines for construction equipment and mining machinery as well as portable generators. Loughrey will be group president of the engine business.

Three days ago, Roberto Cordaro said he will leave Oct. 1 as group president of Cummins' automotive business, which makes engines and parts for medium- and heavy-duty trucks as well as for DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge Ram pickups.

Two U.K. banks in merger plan

LONDON (AP) -- Bank of Scotland PLC today launched a hostile $34.3 billion takeover bid for the larger National Westminster Bank PLC, which NatWest quickly rejected as inadequate.

The proposed takeover would be the largest in British banking history.

Bank of Scotland said it intended to preserve NatWest's separate identity, but that it would sell non-core businesses and return cash to shareholders. Bank of Scotland said it expected the combined banks to be profitable from the start.

In other business news

* Delta Air Lines reached a tentative agreement with its pilots covering two new, larger planes. The agreement with the Air Line Pilots Association announced Thursday provides new pay scales for pilots flying the Boeing 777 and 767-400 aircraft, as well as other contract improvements. Pay rates will be $250 an hour for the 777 and $230 for the 767-400.

* Rite Aid Corp. plans to close a Utah distribution center in mid-2000, cutting 500 jobs, the company announced Thursday. Officials for drugstore chain said they are shifting their West Coast distribution network to a new, 1-million-square-foot facility in Lancaster, Calif.

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