Before 2004, Cincinnati-based super-regional bank Fifth Third (NASDAQ:FITB) had an incredible streak of earnings growth -- 30 straight years of improvement. Despite that history, in 2004 the bank lost some market share and became badly positioned with respect to interest rates. With the first quarter of 2005 in the books, though, shareholders of this bank are certainly hoping that what happened in the past was only a speed bump on the road to further growth.

For the bank's first quarter, there were year-over-year declines in return on assets, return on equity, and net interest margin, and a worsening of the efficiency ratio. Bear in mind, though, that with the exception of net interest margin, all of those numbers are still quite good in comparison to just about any other peer-group bank. What's more, Fifth Third's net interest margin actually rose compared with the fourth quarter -- something that is fairly unusual in this environment.

There was other good news as well: good deposit growth as average demand deposits and savings/money market deposits both posted healthy double-digit gains. What's more, growth in commercial and consumer lending was respectable both on an annual basis and compared with the fourth quarter.

Non-interest income was a bit more of a mixed bag. Electronic processing was up about 13%, but deposit service charges, mortgage banking fees, and investment advisory fees were all down slightly from the year-ago period.

Looking ahead, Fifth Third could certainly resume its prior growth pattern. This bank is one of the most cost-conscious around, routinely posting among the best efficiency ratios. What's more, the bank makes extensive use of employee stock compensation as a means of rewarding performance and driving home an owner/operator philosophy.

Fifth Third is also moving aggressively to position itself in areas where there looks to be above-trend growth, such as in the Southeast part of the U.S. Although foiled in an attempt to buy National Commerce (SunTrust (NYSE:STI) came out on top), the bank's acquisition of Florida-based First National Bankshares should lead to significant deposit growth in that state.

Also, investors can take heart that Fifth Third management has pretty much always stuck to its knitting -- doing what it does well, and avoiding the lending fads that have sucked in less disciplined players.

Consequently, investors shouldn't really expect a quick fix, but rather a measured and reasonable return to growth. Given the company's somewhat low relative valuation but strong operating history, value investors might want to look at this as an interesting turnaround opportunity. Better still, that 3.4% dividend yield can help pay for some of the waiting time.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).