Oh what a dull, decrepit time to be a banker, especially a banker in one of the big four. Performance is a matter of the economy — banks’ businesses are so vast that they are stuck in the currents they find themselves in. About the best you can do is find ways to cut costs, with top-line revenue nigh impossible to grow in a market where no one wants to invest. So the banks’ results for last year trickled out over the last two weeks and reflect an economy that grew just 0.8% in real terms or 4.8% nominally. Local growth for the big four banks was in the lower single digits on most metrics. For most, the top line was flat, with profits only nudged upward thanks to lower costs. There are, however, some interesting areas of outperformance. Perhaps the clearest is FirstRand’s retail and business bank FNB. It managed to grow earnings 13% while delivering a market-thrashing return on equity of 42.2%. FirstRand’s reporting cycle is six months out compared to the rest of the big four, so the...

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