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"The beginning of a return to normality" is how Santander would like investors to see the first quarter of 2013. So what do the numbers tell us about normal everyday life at the Spanish bank? Nothing very attractive, is the general answer. The numbers pushed the shares down 4 per cent on Tuesday.

For Santander to be a compelling investment there needs to be stability in Europe, home to two-thirds of assets, and growth in Latin America, home to most of the rest. Yet the former is struggling. Gross income in Spain fell 11 per cent on the same period last year; income in the U.K. was down by slightly more than that. Poland was the continent's only saving grace, but that is only a small part of the total. Latin America did nothing to make up the lost ground. Income in Brazil, Santander's biggest business in the region, fell 13 per cent.

Can lower costs come to the rescue? Well they did not in the first quarter. Operating costs were flat on last year, so the cost-to-income ratio ticked up from 45 per cent to 48 per cent. And although loan loss provisions ticked down slightly – largely because the bank took hefty provisions through 2012 – there is no certainty that they will not start ticking up again. Non-performing loans in Spain are still rising, as they were through most of last year. The overall result of falling income and flat costs was a 26-per-cent decline in profit.

That is hardly attractive for the status quo. Of course, things could improve. Certainly as 2013 progresses, the comparisons with 2012 (when profits were depressed by those big provisions) get easier. Yet the shares discount that, and more, in already. On 1.1 times forecast tangible book value, they trade at a premium to the 0.8 average for both Spain and the euro zone in general. Investors might be better off with an alternative normality elsewhere.