Novartis of Switzerland and AstraZeneca of Britain plan to merge and spin off their agricultural units to focus on more profitable pharmaceuticals, abandoning a "life sciences" strategy. The new business, to be called Syngenta, would be the world's largest crop chemicals and seeds company. Novartis investors would get 61 percent of the company, which would eliminate 3,000 jobs and expects to save $525 million a year after three years.

Bell Atlantic and GTE proposed creating a tracking stock and separate management team for GTE's Internet business to help win federal regulators' approval of their proposed $92.3 billion combination. The plan was part of a filing made to the Federal Communications Commission last week on ways to retain GTE's Internet business, which operates throughout Bell Atlantic's territory.

Retailers' same-store sales rose a less-than-expected 4 percent last month as shoppers shunned coats and winter clothing because of unusually balmy weather. Department and specialty stores that carry mostly clothing fared the worst, including an 8.7 percent drop at J.C. Penney and a rise of just 1 percent at Gap. Brisk demand for Pokemon toys, electronics and jewelry lifted sales 5.6 percent at Wal-Mart and 5.9 percent at Sears. Retailers should still meet holiday forecasts for a rise of about 5 percent in sales, analysts said.

Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke said the bank regulatory agency is considering creating a new type of bank charter that would make it easier and more attractive for existing banks to form a consortium institution that would provide banking services in poor, underserved neighborhoods.

Amazon.com said a federal judge ordered rival Barnesandnoble.com to stop using technology that lets shoppers make purchases with one click of a computer mouse while Amazon's patent infringement lawsuit is pending. Barnesandnoble.com said it expected the ruling to be overturned after an appeal.

A Miami jury began deliberations in the criminal trial related to the May 1996 ValuJet crash. Nine women and three men must now decide the fate of maintenance contractor SabreTech and its workers, who are accused in a federal indictment of conspiracy, making false statements, hazardous materials violations, and of causing a destructive device to put on a commercial aircraft. Dangerous oxygen generating canisters were loaded aboard ValuJet Flight 592 and those generators, unprotected by safety caps, are believed to have caused the fire that brought down the plane, killing all 110 aboard.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade, the quirky ice cream company that makes flavors such as Chunky Monkey and New York Super Fudge Chunk, said it has received "indications of interest to acquire the company," at a price substantially above its close Wednesday of $21 a share. The Vermont-based company declined to name its suitor, or suitors. The news sent the company's stock up $3.68 3/4 to a $24.68 3/4 close.

Chase Manhattan said that the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System has approved its pending acquisition of investment banker Hambrecht & Quist Group. In September, Chase, the nation's second-biggest bank, said it would buy San Francisco Hambrecht & Quist for $1.35 billion in cash to extend its reach in the lucrative investment banking business. Chase said that as a result of the approval, it anticipates that there will be no further extension of the tender offer beyond the currently scheduled expiration on Dec. 8, if at that time at least 90 percent of Hambrecht & Quist outstanding common stock has been tendered.

Carnival, the world's largest cruise operator, said it won't raise its $1.7 billion cash-and-debt offer to buy the owner of Norwegian Cruise Lines, NCL Holding of Oslo, after rival cruise lines said they won't try to top Carnival's unsolicited bid.

Paine Webber Group said it bought DSI International Management, a Norwalk, Conn., money manager that specializes in enhanced index funds, bolstering its own slow-growing asset-management business. Terms weren't disclosed, although the cost was less than $50 million, said Paine Webber.

INTERNATIONAL

A European aerospace and defense conglomerate designed to compete with U.S. giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin was formed in a signing ceremony in Madrid attended by the leaders of France, Germany and Spain. The merger brings together CASA of Spain, Aerospatiale Matra of France and DASA, the aerospace unit of Germany's DaimlerChrysler, as founding members of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., or EADS. It is Europe's biggest aerospace company and the third-largest in the world.

Russia missed a payment of more than $963 million to the London Club of commercial creditors, but said banks agreed to the lapse because talks are continuing to reschedule the entire debt. During the latest negotiations in Frankfurt, Germany, Russia and the London Club agreed to hold additional talks in 10 days on rescheduling $32 billion in Russian debt, Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said.

SmithKline Beecham, Britain's No. 3 drug company, said chief executive Jan Leschly will retire next April, to be succeeded by Chief Operating Officer Jean-Pierre Garnier.

LOCAL BUSINESS

Pepco Energy Services, a subsidiary of Potomac Electric Power Co., will begin selling natural gas to customers in Maryland and the District of Columbia. The company, which last year acquired the assets and operations of a natural gas wholesaler, will offer natural gas and a home appliance warranty package to customers.

A pair of national hospitality companies will open a new steak restaurant in MCI Center in downtown Washington. The restaurant, Nick and Stef's Steakhouse, will be owned by Thompson Hospitality and Restaurant Associates. Thompson is the largest minority-owned food service company in the United States; Restaurant Associates is owned by Compass Group, a global food services company that manages concessions at many stadiums and arenas.