Card company insiders sold more than 2.3 million shares in the first two months of 1996, apparently reflecting concerns about consumer debt levels and delinquencies.

Officers and directors of Capital One Financial Corp. sold more than one million shares. American Express Co. insiders sold more than half a million shares, while MBNA Corp. officials unloaded more than 300,000 shares in that time.

"The fact that there is selling in these companies is significant because it could reflect concerns within the industry about high consumer delinquency numbers," said Robert Gabele, president of CDA/Investnet, a firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that tracks insider purchases and sales.

Debate has been vigorous on this point over the past few months, as some observers have predicted that card companies' mass solicitations could lead to major consumer credit problems.

Recent bullish economic news, however, has led others to believe consumers will be able to handle their debt loads.

The biggest insider sales occurred at Capital One, a company spun off from Signet Banking Corp. in late 1994.

Chairman Richard Fairbank sold 708,150 shares between Jan. 22 and Feb. 13, while buying 301,860; president Nigel Morris sold 595,650 and bought 162,540.

A company spokeswoman said the shares sold had been restricted for the year 12 months after the spinoff, but had become unrestricted and taxable, in November.

Because of taxes and personal reasons, the spokeswoman said, the executives decided to sell those shares, which in each case represented 8% of their holdings.

A source close to the company, who requested anonymity, said Mr. Fairbank is building a full-length indoor basketball court at his home, and needed some of the proceeds from the stock sale to help pay for that construction.

At American Express, seven insiders in February exercised large chunks of their long-standing options holdings and sold the majority of the shares.

During the month, seven insiders - two of whom were retiring - exercised options totaling 592,574 shares, disposing 556,396 of them. "In no case were the options exercised in danger of expiration - most maturities extended far beyond 2000," said Mr. Gabele.

Michael Monaco, the chief financial officer, exercised options for 153,956 shares, clearing out four separate option series in the process. He disposed of the shares with his largest-ever transactions.

Some of the insiders held on to a portion of the shares they exercised, but they disposed of far more than just enough to cover the costs of the transactions, Mr. Gabele said.

Chairman and chief executive Harvey Golub exercised options for 119,744 shares. He disposed of 101,714 shares, but has filed a statement of intent, or Form 144, indicating he plans to sell the balance.

At MBNA, insiders sold 308,026 shares between Jan. 25 and Feb. 23. Vice presidents Lance Weaver and Bruce Hammonds sold 48,135 shares and 66,045 shares respectively. The Newark, Del., company's president, Charles Cawley, sold 37,500 shares.

First USA Inc. chairman John Tolleson sold 49,200 shares, and Richard Vague, the company president, sold 50,000 shares between January 22 and February 7.

A company spokesman said the executives commonly sell their shares, but management still owns more than 8% of the company.

The one card company that seemed immune from the selling was Advanta Corp. The stock of the Horsham, Pa., company rose more than 40% in the first quarter on expectations of solid earnings.

The company was scheduled to add 7 percentage points to many of its teaser rate loans in the quarter, as introductory periods expire.

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