Executives at major banks are selling their companies' stock at a rate unseen since 1990, when the industry faced a serious threat from collapsing real estate values.

Executives at banks like Citicorp, Banc One Corp., Republic New York Corp., and Comerica Inc., are among the bankers unloading shares at unusually high rates in past months, according to CDA/Investnet, a market research firm in Fort Lauderdale.

Although nothing as serious as the real estate crisis appears to be looming, the insider activity suggests uncertainty about the future direction of bank stock prices. Net interest margins are shrinking, future profitability looks murky, and, at least among the top banks, the prospect of a merger premium is unlikely, said Robert Gabele, president of CDA/Investnet.

Insiders are value investors, Mr. Gabele said, and the executives are taking profits after a gain of about 25% in bank prices this year.

"The major banks are now among the top 10 sectors we track in term of insiders selling," Mr. Gabele said. CDA/Investnet tracks 69 business sectors, and banking is one of the smaller ones, he said, adding that this is the first time since 1990 that bank insider trading has been so prominent.

There is some debate among analysts as to whether insider selling presages a market downturn, as it did in 1989. Bank insiders sold heavily that year, and in 1990 bank stocks hit all-time lows as many banks were closed. Insiders then began to buy, and stocks recovered in 1991.

"When you get an industrywide trend of industry selling it is at least something you want to watch in that the insiders may be getting a feeling as a group that things are as good as they are going to be for some time," said Scott Edgar, an analyst with SIFE Trust Fund.

"But they may all feel the same thing," he said, "and they all may be wrong."

Mr. Gabele said insiders at large banks are turning bearish because they sense a turning point in the business cycle.

In the latest series of earnings reports, some banks reported shrinking net interest margins and said profits may not be sustainable at current levels. BankAmerica Corp.'s chief financial officer, Louis Coleman, warned Wednesday that credit problems could soon return.

Citicorp insiders unloaded 48,836 shares between mid-May and early June. Vice Chairman William R. Rhodes exercised an option on 31,700 shares and sold them on May 23 for between $50.63 and $50.75.

Insider activity has been high at the money-center, as its stock price has surged 45% so far this year. In the last six months, there have been 15 insider sales, representing the highest level of activity among banks tracked by CDA/Investnet.

At Republic New York, John A. Pancetti, an officer and director, sold 53,000 shares, or 51% of his holding, on May 31 at a price of $49 per share, netting $2.6 million. Six insiders have sold shares at the money- center in the last six months, and only one executive has bought shares in that period.

At Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp., where insider buying was feverish just seven months ago, executives sold 34,713 shares in late May and early June.

Vice president Roman J. Gerber exercised an option on 8,400 shares on June 5 and sold them. Malcolm Chancey, an officer, exercised an option on 29,428 shares and sold 16,468 of those shares.

At Detroit-based Comerica, insiders sold 98,620 shares. Former chief financial officer Paul H. Martzowka, who retired June 30, exercised an option on 74,280 shares on June 6 and sold them. He holds 47,539 shares. Former chairman Gerald V. MacDonald sold 14,980 shares, or 24% of his holding.

At Southern National Corp., W. Reynolds Cuthbertson, a director, sold 36,300 shares, or 24% of his holding, at a price of $23.88, netting $866,400.

Activity was more mixed at smaller regional banks. But at two perennial takeover targets, Imperial Bancorp and Integra Financial Inc., insiders sold significant blocks of stock. Mr. Gabele said the stock selling might indicate the executives do not expect to merge.

At Imperial, insiders sold 130,519 shares in the first few weeks of June. Norman P. Creighton, president and chief executive, exercised an option on 121,550 shares between June 5 and June 21, and sold 72,770 shares to help pay for them.

At Integra, insiders sold 40,073 shares in late May through June. President Leonard M. Carroll exercised options on 12,439 shares in late May and June.

Some regional bank insiders bought their shares. At GP Financial Corp., insiders demonstrated a strong reaction to the pounding their stock took after the company agreed in May to buy H.F. Ahmanson's New York branch system for $660 million, Mr. Gabele said.

Less than two weeks after that announcement, company insiders bought 3,700 shares, including 2,700 shares bought by chairman Thomas Johnson.

At many regional banks, insider buying also appeared to be related to takeover possibilities, Mr. Gabele said.

For example, two insiders at Keystone Financial Inc., a $4.5 billion asset bank in Harrisburg, Pa., purchased 26,577 shares in late June. President Carl L. Campbell bought 17,292 shares on June 26, increasing his holdings by 55%.

And at Silicon Valley Bancshares, insiders snapped up 32,000 shares between mid-may and late June. Director Allan C. Kramer bought 4,500 shares in late May, increasing his stake 33%.

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In the stock market Thursday, Bank of Boston Corp. shares surged on a better than expected earnings release, and reports that Mellon Bank Corp. was mulling a bid to buy the bank for $50 a share. Bank of Boston finished up $2.875 at $41.75, after being up more than $3.625. Mellon fell 50 cents to $42.25.

Boatmen's Bancshares Inc. rose 87.50 cents to $37.50, and Chemical Banking Corp. rose $1.75 to $51.875.

The Standard & Poor's index of banks rose .91%, while the overall S&P 500 rose .47%.

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