Takeover rumors continue to swirl around Baltimore-based MNC Financial Inc.

The speculation fueled heavy trading in the $16.9 billion-asset company's shares on Monday and Tuesday, putting them among the New York Stock Exchange's most active issues.

The company declined to comment on the large volume, which was five times higher than usual. But investors were clearly betting a deal is in cards.

"There seems to be a perception that something is about to happen," said Nancy A. Bush, analyst with Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co.

Although MNC's nonperforming assets equal a hefty 9.5% of total assets, its 24% share of the Maryland deposit market makes it an attractive takeover candidate.

"It has the biggest market share in Maryland," said Richard Stillinger, banking analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Despite the big volume, MNC's shares were unchanged Tuesday at $11.625, after rising 37.5 cents the previous day. The company's stock has more than doubled since the beginning of the year, rebounding to near its 52-week high.

Rumors started last month that MNC would be acquired by First Union Corp. or another eastern superregional.

The speculation quieted down for a while after First Union denied on June 11 that it had any designs on MNC and subsequently agreed to buy a large thrift.

Other Possible Buyers

Speculation is now centering on other rumored suitors, including First Fidelity Bancorp.; Lawrenceville, N.J.; CoreStates Financial Corp., Philadelphia; and PNC Financial Corp. and Mellon Bank Corp., both of Pittsburgh.

The banks declined to comment on MNC. Share prices of these companies have not moved appreciably.

A Mellon spokesman, however, acknowledged that the bank is interested in expanding in Maryland.

A spokesman for PNC said in-market mergers have a higher priority in its plans than mergers in nearby states such as Maryland.

Heavy Volume

About 1.9 million MNC shares were traded Monday, making MNC the sixth most active stock on the Big Board. The heavy trading continued Tuesday, when 1.64 million shares changed hands.

Some of the volume was attributed to talk that the bank's chairman, Aflred A. Lerner, was poised to sell his 9.5% stake, thus putting the bank into play.

Under federal rules against interlocking management, Mr. Lerner must choose by next January between being chairman of MNC and playing a similar role at its Newark, Del., spinoff, MBNA Corp.

Unlikely to Take Back Seat

The conventional wisdom has been that he would choose to remain chairman of MBNA, putting MNC into play with the sale of his shares as early as this summer.

Although Mr. Lerner is not required to sell his stock, he is unlikely to keep the shares if he has to take a back seat in management, analysts said.

Also fueling the heavy trading are expectations that the second-quarter results, due out the week of July 20, will show the bank continuing to recover from a real estate woes and possibly posting a profit, Mr. Stillinger said.

The company lost $70.2 million, or $3.12 a share, in 1991, despite a gain of $450 million in that year's first quarter from the sale of MBNA.

Nonperforming assets peaked in the third quarter at nearly $1.9 billion, however. And the bank lost only $20.4 million in the first quarter, after losing $82.2 million in the fourth quarter of 1991.

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