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Business news in brief

In the Region

Ally takes step toward independence

Ally Financial Inc., the auto and home lender bailed out by the federal government, moved closer to regaining its independence as the government converted $5.5 billion of preferred stock into common shares. Ally has operations in Fort Washington. The swap involves almost half the Treasury Department's preferred shares and boosts the U.S. taxpayers' stake to 74 percent of Ally's common shares from 56.3 percent, according to a statement Thursday. A Treasury official told reporters that the transaction would help the government's exit strategy by normalizing the company's capital structure. - Bloomberg News

An Alliance conversion approved

Alliance Bancorp Inc., Broomall, said its shareholders and depositors separately approved the conversion of the bank's Alliance Mutual Holding Co., currently owned by depositors, into a publicly traded bank holding company. Completion of the conversion is contingent on the sale of 2.64 million shares of stock in the new holding company and regulatory approval. Alliance, with $436 million in assets, has nine offices in Delaware and Chester Counties. - Harold Brubaker

Sale of Royal Asian Bank completed

Royal Bancshares of Pennsylvania Inc., Narberth, said it completed the sale of subsidiary Royal Asian Bank for $12.3 million to an investor group led by Edward Shin, the president and chief executive of Royal Asian. Royal Asian, founded in 2004 and based in Philadelphia, has $87 million in assets and six offices in Southeastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and Flushing, N.Y. - Harold Brubaker

Rates to rise at A.C. Electric

Atlantic City Electric said New Jersey regulators had approved rate adjustments that would increase customers' electric bills by about 5.5 percent. The new rates are effective Saturday. The utility said the state Board of Public Utilities authorized it to pass through expenses for several items. They include a charge for statewide societal benefits programs and costs related to the company's residential appliance recycling program. It said a typical residential customer's bill would increase by $9.88 to $188.62 a month. Atlantic City Electric provides electricity to more than 547,000 customers in South Jersey. - AP

Casino gets OK to reduce slots

Mount Airy Casino Resort has won approval from Pennsylvania gambling regulators to remove 150 slot machines from its gaming floor. The move comes amid concerns about an excess of slot machines in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Mount Airy will be able to remove the slot machines after the Gaming Control Board's executive director approves a revised gaming floor plan. Mount Airy officials say the nearby Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem has led to a loss in market share. The reduction will leave Mount Airy with 2,275 machines. - AP

Aqua America makes Texas purchase

Aqua America Inc.'s Texas subsidiary acquired the water and wastewater system assets of a Gulf Coast company for $3.3 million. Aqua, Bryn Mawr, said Gray Utility's systems serve about 6,300 people in a region about 40 miles from downtown Houston. - Roslyn Rudolph


'Significant' gas find in Israel

Noble Energy Inc. said drilling test results in its Leviathan field off Israel's coast confirm a "significant" find of at least 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The field is "easily the largest exploration discovery in our history," said Charles Davidson, chief executive officer of the Houston-based explorer with a controlling interest in the field, in a statement. The other principal Leviathan partners are Israeli companies Delek Drilling L.P., Avner Oil & Gas Ltd. and Ratio Oil Exploration 1992 L.P. Leviathan is almost double the size of the Tamar field off Israel's Mediterranean coast discovered in 2009 by Noble and its partners. - Bloomberg News

Rattner settles N.Y. probe for $10M

The investment banker who helped lead the Obama administration's auto-industry overhaul has agreed to pay $10 million to settle influence-peddling allegations in New York. Steven Rattner admitted no wrongdoing as part of the deal, which was announced by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo's office had filed civil suits against Rattner in November, accusing him of paying kickbacks to help his company land $150 million in state pension-fund investments in 2004 and 2005. He denied the charges. - AP

Public pension holdings at 2-year high

U.S. public pension funds' holdings rose 6.2 percent in the third quarter, reaching the highest level in two years as the stock market recovered, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. Holdings rose to $2.5 trillion from $2.35 trillion at the end of the second quarter, according to the report on the 100 largest state and local government pension funds. The increase follows a 5.3 percent decline in the second quarter. Illinois, Oklahoma, and Kentucky had the most underfunded state pension systems in their 2009 fiscal years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. - Bloomberg News

Sales planned as property values rise

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. is planning "important" real estate sales in the first half of 2011 as values for its properties rise after the firm's two years in bankruptcy, chief executive officer Bryan Marsal said. "We have some strategic projects involving some very high-quality assets that we hope to be bringing to an attractive market," Marsal said in an e-mail, declining to name buildings being considered for sale. Lehman, once the fourth-largest investment bank, listed real estate assets of $23 billion the day before its Sept. 15, 2008, bankruptcy, the largest in U.S. history. Its properties had a market value of about $14 billion nine months later, Lehman said in court papers. - Bloomberg News

Ford recalls trucks, crossovers

Ford Motor Co. is recalling nearly 15,000 trucks and crossovers due to problems with electrical systems that can short and create a fire. The Dearborn, Mich., automaker said the recall included some 2011 model-year F-150, F-250, F-350, F-450, F-550, Ford Edge, and Lincoln MKX vehicles. A Ford supplier of a control module produced the faulty product over a six-day period. Owners may call Ford at 1-866-436-7332 to see if their vehicle is included in the recall. - AP