Hysteria surrounds companies such as Apple and Facebook, but in reality global banks are the Hollywood stars of the business world. There are dullards and rogues – with both requiring rehab from time to time. The biggest banks are world famous and almost everyone has a (mostly uninformed) opinion about them. They are often national institutions. Politicians court them until something ugly happens and they are dropped faster than Mel Gibson.

Rational investors want to know the real bank behind the fame. That means getting a handle on normalised earnings. So much has happened since the meltdown that no one has a clue, for example, what investment banking divisions should earn any more. Thankfully glamour boy JPMorgan, which opened the US bank earnings season on Friday, helped reveal what post-crisis life may look like.

Revenues and net income in the first three months of 2012 were up by a quarter and a half respectively versus last quarter. Looking back, however, shows that JPMorgan is now surprisingly homely. Its top line is only up 6 per cent compared with a year ago, net income is flat, as are credit card income, lending and deposit fees, compensation expenses (32 per cent of revenues), return on equity (12 per cent) as well as tier one capital (12.6 per cent of risk weighted assets).

Hidden depths remain, of course. Investment banking, say, is still in the dumps with net income down almost a third compared with last year. But mortgage production volumes are up sharply and a genuinely positive trend is now emerging in commercial lending. Middle-market loans have jumped 18 per cent year on year. Likewise, credit card charge-offs are half the level they were at the end of 2010.

Still, Hollywood banks remain in a fantasy land. Like that looming Shakespeare role in London, investors will only really know how banks are cutting it when today’s near-zero interest normalise first.

E-mail the Lex team in confidence at lex@ft.com

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