Tesco directors have cashed in almost £19m worth of company shares in the past three months, data from Digital Look has revealed.

The sell-offs are among the largest in the FTSE 100 in recent months, with only two other companies having more director sales over the same period.

By contrast, Sainsbury's directors sold just £2.3m of shares over the period, while Morrisons directors sold no shares whatsoever.

Fresh & Easy chief executive Tim Mason sold the most shares after exercising and selling £6.7m worth of share options last month. Mason's sale was closely followed by commercial director Richard Brasher's £4.9m sale in November. CEO Terry Leahy sold £1.8m of Tesco shares, while international director Philip Clarke netted £1.3m. Fresh food boss Colin Holmes has also cashed in more than £650,000 of shares in the past month.

As many of the sales were the result of exercising share options a long- term incentive that allows directors to buy a number of shares at discounted prices net director sales at Tesco totalled £8.1m.

Analysts suggested the share sales were likely made ahead of expected increases in UK capital gains tax, believed to be necessary to pay down the country's mountainous budget deficit. "Selling shares at a rate so much ahead of others in the industry is an interesting phenomenon," said one. "It suggests the individuals concerned believe any increase in Tesco share price over the next year or so would not outweigh the costs of any changes to the tax system.

"As far as they're concerned, there's no downside unless they believed Tesco's share price was likely to increase dramatically."

A Tesco spokesman said the sell-offs were just business as usual. "Directors sell their shareholdings all the time," he said. "Share options are part of their usual remuneration."

A source close to Tesco also suggested directors had delayed selling shares until Tesco's share price recovered to "a more appropriate level".

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Editor's Comment: Only half the global supermarket share prices are back at pre-Lehman levels (13 February 2010)
Tesco bids adieu to two fresh category directors (30 January 2010)