While many analysts have been advising investors to keep their money in bank stocks, bankers themselves have been taking profits in recent months.
Insiders at Citicorp, BankAmerica Corp., Bank of Boston Corp., KeyCorp, and PNC Bank Corp. have been steadily unloading their shares since January, raising insider selling totals to lofty levels and giving credence to concerns about banks' soaring market valuations.
"The banking insiders' view of the world with regard to their stocks seems to be somewhat divergent from Wall Street's interpretation," said Robert Gabele, president of CDA Investment Technologies, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Bank stocks, which have led a bull run on Wall Street for about two years, have lost ground recently as investors reacted to the increasing likelihood of a rate hike at today's Federal Reserve meeting.
Mr. Gabele said these banks' stocks had been rising faster than their earnings would justify. "The story in these banks is the story of the whole industry; the valuations do not reflect what is going on with the bank," he said.
In fact, with the Standard & Poor's index up 13.5% since Jan. 1, it's not surprising that bank executives are locking in gains, some bank representatives said.
"Insider selling relates to the individual's personal investment needs and profiles," said BankAmerica spokesman Peter Magnani. Indeed, a number of notable transactions were by officials who retired or took on new titles recently.
According to CDA, more shares of BankAmerica have been sold by insiders in the first quarter of 1997 than in any first quarter since 1989, when the stock was near its all-time low. Vice chairman Michael Rossi exercised options on 167,999 shares over several options series, and director Richard Rosenberg-the former chairman-sold 85,000 shares and disposed of his rights to 115,000 shares.
Sales by Citicorp insiders rose to 1.5 million shares in 1996, up from 1.1 million in 1995, and 582,039 shares the year before.
In the first quarter of 1997, William Rhodes, vice chairman and director at Citicorp, sold 50,000 shares, reducing his holdings to 111,272 shares.
Citicorp Spokesman Jack Morris pointed out that many of the bank's insiders are executives who are foreign nationals and cannot benefit from the tax deferrals on capital gains as American executives do. For that reason, they time their sales differently than their American counterparts.
Dionisio Martin, an executive vice president in charge of emerging markets is one example. Mr. Martin, based in London, sold 85,000 shares in February, reducing his holdings to 16,883, according to CDA, which monitors insider-trading filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
At KeyCorp, Henry Meyer 3d exercised options and reduced his holdings by 41,242 shares. KeyCorp declined to comment.
PNC president James Rohr sold 164,000 shares Feb. 14, his largest open- market transactions since initially filing in 1990. PNC did not respond to requests for comment.
At Bank of Boston, chairman William Crozier filed to sell 100,755 shares Jan. 23 and an additional 44,000 shares Feb. 3, his first open-market sales since originally filing in 1993.
A Bank of Boston spokeswoman said the bank closed windows for insiders to exercise trades from June to October, suggesting that executives were catching up on their sales more recently.
Analyst Raphael Soifer of Brown Brothers Harriman, said insider trading can be an indicator of future stock performance. But he said the recent spate of trading is not extensive relative to the size of the companies. u