The sun shone on SunTrust Banks ( STI ) in the first quarter as the Atlanta-based bank posted a 9% increase in profit, easily beating analysts' earnings expectations.

Net income rose to $358.5 million, or $1.26 a share, vs. $327.8 million, or $1.17 a share, in the first quarter of 2003. The consensus estimate of analysts was for $1.23 a share, according to Thomson First Call. The bank also beat analysts' consensus forecast in the fourth quarter of last year. Total revenue rose to $1.46 billion from $1.38 billion in the year-ago period.

The bank cited strong revenue generation, excellent fee income growth, continued net interest margin expansion and effective expense discipline, but noted that "demand for bank loans by large corporate clients remains elusive," an industry-wide condition unusual for this point in the economic cycle, which has baffled industry analysts and economists alike.

SunTrust said net interest income rose 3.6% from $822.5 million a year ago to $851.6 million. Noninterest income, excluding net securities gains, rose 17% to $590.2 million

Average loans rose 9% to $79.9 billion, while average consumer and commercial deposits rose 4% to $70.4 billion from year-ago levels. At quarter's end, SunTrust had total assets of $125.2 billion.

SunTrust is the nation's eighth largest banking group. Shares closed at $69.85 Wednesday.

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