NEW YORK - Merrill Lynch shareholders have approved the investment bank's sale to Bank of America, in a move that will create the nation's largest financial services firm.

During a special shareholders meeting at company headquarters in New York, Merrill shareholders approved the sale of the company to the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank.

Merrill originally agreed to sell itself to Bank of America in September amid the deepening credit crisis. The sale helps Merrill avoid the fate of competitor Lehman Brothers, which filed for bankruptcy.

Bank of America shareholders are set to vote on the acquisition at 11 a.m. EST.

The deal is expected to close during the first quarter.