Insiders at U.S. banks began unloading their shares in late February and March as the industry's executives cashed in on rising stock prices.

Though buyers still outnumbered sellers, the large number of bank executives unloading their shares contrasted sharply with the pattern of the previous five months, when most insider transactions were purchases.

Selling was particularly heavy at MBNA Corp., PNC Bank Corp., Imperial Bancorp, AmSouth Corp., and money-centers like Chase Manhattan Corp. and Bank of New York Co., according to CDA/Investnet, a market research firm that tracks insider transactions .

"You are definitely seeing some profit taking," said Robert Gabele, president of CDA/Investnet. "A lot of the buyers have backed off. You are still seeing some accumulation, but not quite the same" as in past months.

The bank index has risen roughly 18% since Jan. 1, 1995, compared with the overall market rise of 15%, said Scott Edgar, an analyst with Sife Trust Fund.

"Insiders are influenced just as much as anybody by external factors," he said. "They were buyers when the price was going down, and now that the prices are rising, they are selling."

At credit card giant MBNA, based in Wilmington, Del., insiders exercised options on 286,735 shares in March, but sold 91% of them. The company's president, Charles Cawley, exercised options on 30,000 shares on March 6 and sold 25,540 shares.

"That is a lot of stock coming out in a short period of time," said Mr. Gabele. "They may be feeling the stock is getting a little pricey." The stock was trading this week at 482% of book value.

At PNC in Pittsburgh, insiders sold 14,000 shares and bought only 500 in late February and March. Vice presidents Bruce E. Robbins and A.W. Schenck sold 9,000 and 5,000 shares, respectively.

At Imperial Bancorp in Inglewood, Calif., insiders dumped 8,925 shares in March. One officer, Jack R. Barkley, sold all of his 5,555 shares.

At AmSouth Bancorp in Birmingham, Ala., insiders sold 11,510 shares in Late February and March. Director M. Miller Gorrie sold 5,360 shares, or 36% of his holdings.

At National Commerce Bancorp in Memphis, chairman Thomas M. Garrott sold 20,000 shares on Feb. 25, but still holds 813,652 shares. And on April 19, officer William T. Williams sold 2,500 shares, or 7% of his stake.

Money-centers also saw some heavy selling. At Bank of New York Co. director Samuel F. Chevalier sold 25% of his holdings and now has 29,602 shares.

John V. Scicutella, a retired executive of Chase Manhattan Corp., exercised options on 71,666 shares between $10.30 and $35.50 and sold then all on March 31. He now holds 9,380 shares.

Another retiree, Joseph S. Dimartino from Mellon Bank Corp., sold all 309,264 of his shares for between $38.19 and $39.25 in late February.

Mr. Gabele cautioned against reading too much into retirees' selling, because executives who retire often sell their holdings.

At BayBanks Inc., long considered a choice takeover candidate, executives exercised options on 19,544 shares. Chairman William Crozier on Feb. 27 exercised options on 4,155 shares and sold 2,268 of them to cover expenses. He now holds 78,670 shares.

At Northern Trust Co., insiders exercised options on 98,187 shares, but turned 42,164 of those in to the company for cash exchange or sold them on the open market.

This is somewhat surprising because Northern Trust's shares have lagged behind the overall market for a couple of years, Mr. Gabele said. The insiders are not expressing much confidence in this company, he said.

Of course, not all insiders were bearish on their company's stock price.

At UST Corp., Boston, Mass., insiders bought 47,250 shares in March, though chairman James Sidell sold 2,500 shares.

At Citicorp, chairman John Reed exercised options on 64,000 shares at $21.68 on Feb. 22 and now holds 380,437 shares. This way, Mr. Gabele explained, Mr. Reed can achieve a higher dividend yield by exercising and holding the stock.

* * *

In trading Thursday, banks staged a major rally. The Standard & Poor's bank index jumped 1.20%, compared with the overall S&P jump of 0.01%.

Bank stocks were lifted by a bond market rally, which followed a higher- than-expected initial jobs claims report for the week ended April 29.

In the past week, the federal government's retail sales figures and leading economic indicators have also signaled that the economy is slowing down, a positive sign for investors who had worried about the impact of rising interest rates on banks.

The 30-year Treasury bond had gained 51 basis points by midafternoon and was trading at a yield of 7.16%

A host of bank stocks moved up strongly, but the money-centers were front and center at the rally.

Citicorp jumped $1.375 to $48.625, Bank of New York was up 62.5 cents to $34.125, J.P. Morgan & Co. was up 50 cents to $66.375, and Chemical Banking Corp. was up $1.125 to $43.375.

West Coast banks also performed well. BankAmerica Corp. was up 25 cents to $49.75, Wells Fargo & Co. was up $2.875 to $172.25, and First Interstate Bancorp jumped 87.5 cents to $81.875. This week the Los Angeles bank's price has increased 6%.

"Up until the last few sets of economic numbers, there was still the possibility that the Federal Reserve would hike interest rates," said Mr. Edgar of Sife Trust Fund. "That possibility has been quickly wiped away."

Shares of some southern banks also surged after CNBC correspondent Daniel Dorfman mentioned shares of Compass Bancshares, Union Planters Corp., and Colonial Bancgroup Inc. in his broadcast.

Compass shares rose 62.5 cents to $26.375, Colonial shares rose $1 to $25.75, and Union Planters shares rose 75 cents to $25.50.

Cullen Frost Bankers jumped 93.5 cents to $38.375, a 52-week high. Volume was 302,900 shares, compared with average daily volume of 33,434 so far this year.

NationsBank Corp. shares rose $1 to $51.50. Lehman Brothers analyst Michael Mayo raised his 1995 earnings-per-share estimate for the company 10 cents, to $6.95, and for 1996 he upped his estimate 30 cents to $7.70.

Mr. Mayo cited the pending reduction in deposit insurance premiums and a favorable outlook for banks in general.

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