These banks have outperformed industry averages for years and continued to do so in 2012, avoiding the exceptional losses that often follow exceptional returns.

The tables in the graphic below – one for all banks and one for banks that trade on public exchanges – rank companies by returns on assets for the year through September. All have notched ROAs that were better than at least 80% of their peers in every trailing four-quarter period since the third quarter of 2008. (Interactive controls are described in the captions. Text continues below.)

The “universal” list, which includes banks that do not trade publicly, is largely populated by small institutions with median assets of less than $200 million as of Sept. 30.

(Institutions on the universal list have been selected from entities that report consolidated financial statements to regulators, unless they are subsidiaries of larger entities that also report consolidated financials. That means a particular bank’s results might not reflect performance across the enterprise to which it belongs; for instance, if it has sibling banks and is part of a holding company that does not report consolidated financials.)

The publicly traded list encompasses some familiar names, including the $22 billion-asset Cullen/Frost (CFR) and the $13.4 billion-asset Bank of Hawaii (BOH). (They also appear on the universal list.)

Profits as a percentage of total assets is the ultimate bottom line for banks, providing a more direct perspective on performance than return on equity, for which leverage is one of the two central inputs.

The riskiness of different pools of assets varies, however, and investors value returns at individual banks differently.

Notably, Republic Bancorp (RCBAA), which produced a return on assets of 4.2% during the first nine months, traded at 80% of tangible book value as of Monday’s market close. Its stock underperformed after pressure from regulators resulted in it abandoning a tax refund-anticipation loan business.

Mostly, however, the market has awarded high multiples to banks that have produced consistently high returns. Just two institutions on the public list traded below the industrywide median for price to tangible book value of about 90%. All but nine had multiples in the top fifth, or above 130%.

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