As the recession deepened, market watchers began obsessing about banks' capital ratios to figure out who might fail next. With a recovery on the horizon, they've latched on to another somewhat obscure financial metric: pretax, pre-provision earnings.

Unprofitable institutions like Synovus Financial Corp. and Huntington Bancshares Inc. have touted consistent and growing PPE as evidence that they can thrive on the other side of the crisis. Others, like Fifth Third Bancorp, have been releasing more details on their PPE to cater to market interest.

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