Insiders at several credit card banks have been aggressively selling their companies' shares recently, while executives at southern regional banks have beefed up their holdings.

Executives at MBNA Corp., Advanta Corp., and First USA all unloaded significant portions of shares in the last two months, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

The companies said the sales were generally related to options and did not reflect on their business prospects. But Robert Gabele, president of CDA/Investnet, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who tracks insider trading, said he's noticed a trend with credit card banks that suggests some executives many be growing less bullish.

"Though the selling in the individual issues does not reflect record levels, what is catching our attention is the consensus of the group of companies in the consumer lending sector," he said.

Despite an upbeat quarter for earnings, chargeoffs for securitized credit card portfolios reached record levels in December, up to 5.87% for the group, according to the Fitch Credit Card Performance Index, which tracks chargeoffs on receivables for the 20 biggest banks.

At MBNA, five insiders unloaded a total of 187,835 shares at prices in the $40 range last month. President Charles M. Cawley sold a total of 72,700 shares valued at $2.9 million within a two-week period. In fact, more shares of MBNA were sold by insiders in 1996 than since 1992.

An MBNA spokesman declined to comment.

Ten insiders at Advanta also sold shares during the last two months of 1996.

Some of the shares were sold by departing executives liquidating their holdings, and others exercised options for "personal reasons," a spokeswoman said.

Senior managers were locked out of trading for most of the year, while the company was in discussions with American Express for the Rewards Accelerator product that was launched Nov. 6, she said. Once the restriction was lifted, a sudden surge in trading was to be expected, she said.

At First USA, seven bank officials sold 105,000 shares in the company in November. A spokesman for the bank said the sales were related to options that executives are allowed to exercise immediately following earnings reports in October.

While credit card executives have been scaling back their positions, top executives at Amsouth Bancorp., SouthTrust Corp., Triangle Bancorp, and Trans Financial Inc. have increased stakes in their banks in the last few months.

"Of all the regions, the southern banks have shown the most persistent insider buying," Mr. Gabele said, adding that the activity probably reflects consolidation and growth in the region's banks.

Analysts noted that the region is ripe for consolidation this year, especially in Alabama, home base for banks like SouthTrust and Amsouth that have spread their wings into other parts of the country.

"Though managements have not expressed a desire to sell out, as long as they produce, they can't insulate themselves," said analyst Darren Short of C. Robinson-Humphrey Co. Inc., Atlanta. The growing number of potential acquirers, especially from the Midwest wanting to increase their reach into the South, certainly enhances that possibility.

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