Whether a bank in growth mode strikes out or hits a home run in the eyes of investors these days often comes down to a final question: How was fee income?

The answer was “pretty good” for BB&T and KeyCorp, two big regionals that reported quarterly results recently. As expenses get harder to tighten and net interest income remains strained, both banks turned to the non-commercial-banking parts of their businesses — such as insurance agency units and investment banking arms — for help. Huntington Bancshares, a smaller bank with less to fall back on, saw its noninterest income fall significantly.  At the same time it reported a smaller increase in quarterly profits than the other banks and a relatively flat full year.

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