Peco Energy, Philadelphia's electric utility, and Unicom Corp., owner of Chicago's Commonwealth Edison, agreed to a merger that will create the fifth-largest utility company and the biggest operator of nuclear plants in the United States. The transaction, which is being structured as a purchase of Unicom, is valued at $7.8 billion, excluding debt. Unicom chief executive John Rowe and Peco chief executive Corbin McNeill will be co-chief executives of the new company, which will be based in Chicago.

New claims for jobless benefits dropped unexpectedly last week to the lowest level since 1974. But some economists attributed much of the decline to Hurricane Floyd, saying the storm prevented some unemployed people from getting to claims offices. The Labor Department said 272,000 people filed new claims for state unemployment benefits for the week, down 17,000 from the previous week. Many economists had predicted an increase to 290,000.

Kohler has agreed to pay $886,500 to more than 2,000 women who were denied jobs because they were too short. The plumbing-fixture company agreed to settle a Labor Department lawsuit alleging sex bias for a company practice of hiring only workers who were at least 5 feet 4 inches tall. The rule kept women out of higher-paying jobs and thus qualified as discrimination, Labor contended.

An electronics executive was arrested on charges he paid the family of a 13-year-old Vietnamese girl more than $150,000 to have sex with her in Vietnam, federal authorities said. Michael D. Rostoker was taken into custody at San Francisco International Airport as he was about to board a flight for Vietnam. Rostoker, an engineer and patent lawyer, is president and chief executive of Microelectronics Research of San Jose.

Two former Stratton Oakmont executives have pleaded guilty to an expanded list of stock-fraud charges, federal prosecutors said. The now-defunct brokerage firm's former chairman, Jordan Belfort, and ex-president, Daniel Porush, had earlier pleaded guilty to two counts each of conspiracy to commit stock fraud and money laundering. Documents unsealed yesterday showed that each has now pleaded guilty to eight new criminal counts, including manipulating the prices of initial public stock offerings and money laundering.

Two former senior executives of a GTE subsidiary agreed to pay $51,775 to settle allegations that they invested in BBN based on inside knowledge that their employer planned to buy the company, regulators said. The Securities and Exchange Commission alleged that C. David Decker, while president of GTE Laboratories, illegally purchased BBN stock after he learned GTE planned to buy the company. The SEC said William G. Griffin, then a GTE Labs vice president, also bought BBN stock after finding out about the acquisition plans. Griffin also tipped a family member about the plans and lent her money to buy shares, the SEC alleged.

Robert J. Hart, a former executive of Ucar International, the world's largest producer of graphite electrodes, agreed to plead guilty, pay a $1 million fine and serve nine months in jail for fixing prices of a key steel-making component, the Justice Department announced. So far, the department's antitrust division has brought five cases and obtained nearly $300 million in criminal fines from its ongoing investigation of price fixing in the graphite electrode industry. Graphite electrodes are the heat source for the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. steel industry--mini-mills--that now account for half of U.S. steel production.

Institutional holders of General American Life Insurance's short-term funding agreements are cashing out of the illiquid instruments. Metropolitan Life Insurance, which agreed to buy the parent of General American last month for $1.2 billion, said it will pay out about $5.1 billion to 34 of the 39 contract holders, some of them big-name mutual-fund companies.

RECALLS

Deck cleaner is being recalled because of caps that dangerously affect the air pressure inside the container, possibly causing the product to be expelled and resulting in eye damage or skin irritation. About 420,000 one- and 2.5-gallon plastic containers of Olympic Deck Cleaner with green caps are affected. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said a consumer and three stores have contacted the manufacturer, PPG Architectural Finishes, about bulging or seeping containers but no injuries were reported. The recalled deck cleaners have batch codes beginning with 06C, 07C, 08C, 09C, 10C, 11C, 12C, 01D, 02D, 03D, 04D, 05D and 06D. They were sold at home-improvement centers, hardware stores and lumber yards nationwide from June 1998 through June 1999. For replacement, call the manufacturer at 1-888-774-7332.

LOCAL BUSINESS

America Online plans to launch service in Hong Kong next week and will give details of the offering Sept. 28, according to a company spokesman. AOL also announced a deal with custom CD service Musicmaker.com of Reston, in which Musicmaker.com will pay AOL $20 million over three years to sell its CDs and downloadable music on AOL's properties.

Antex Biologics of Gaithersburg said it had restructured a four-year-old agreement with SmithKline Beecham, the pharmaceutical giant. SmithKline took a larger stake in Antex, now holding 12 percent of the stock, and will pursue development of four vaccines discovered with Antex technology. Previously, under a joint-venture arrangement, SmithKline had a stake in all vaccines discovered at Antex. The new deal frees the Gaithersburg company to develop future vaccines on its own or license them to third parties.