Directors of Hong Kong-listed companies have been net buyers of their shares in the past three months, suggesting some optimism in the run-up to the Lunar New Year. However, directors are buying a lot less this season than last, when their purchases were rewarded with a post-Lunar New Year rally. And two key sectors - banking and property - are tilting towards the sell side. In terms of value, Hong Kong insiders were net buyers by $29 million in December, $139.7 million last month and $11.7 million in the first week of this month. Transactions on the buy side outnumbered the totals on the sell side by more than two to one. A total of 611 buying trades have been made in the past three months, involving 128 companies and 145 directors, compared with 289 sales involving only 66 companies and 71 directors. While the buying interest is solid, the figures are far below the numbers recorded in the same period last year. Insiders were more bullish from December 1997 to mid-February last year, with a whopping 1,478 trades involving 289 companies and 330 directors recorded on the buy side. The buys added up to $1.72 billion - 3.3 times higher than the $520 million acquired by directors in the run-up to the Year of the Rabbit. The sharp drop follows a market rally in the fourth quarter which raised share prices across the board. Nevertheless, it suggests that directors have turned more cautious in the run-up to this Lunar New Year, perhaps a sign that they do not expect stunning results in the foreseeable future. The busy reporting season is under way, with the bulk of the big companies reporting their year-end results between now and April. From a sectoral standpoint, directors of property stocks have remained bearish since October. Trades by insiders in the property sector in the past five months have amounted to a net sell of $36 million. The biggest sales came last month, which saw net sales of $39.6 million. Directors have sold shares in property stocks such as Sun Hung Kai Properties ($43 million), Kerry Properties ($8.8 million) and Henderson Land ($3.4 million). These sales can be thought of as profit-taking after sharp gains since September. Sellers have also dominated trading in the banking sector in the past five months with net sales of $9.2 million. Some buying, however, has emerged in the past three months, with purchases recorded by various directors of Kwong On Bank ($4.7 million), Asia Financial ($2.6 million) and Dah Sing Financial ($680,000). Directors of Bank of East Asia have led the sector in selling in the past three months, with a total of 198,000 shares being offloaded for $2.9 million. Robert Halili is director of Ownership Research Asia at Disclosure Inc.