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* H1 headline earnings per share 918.4 cents vs 877.8 last year
* Earnings at South African retail division up 4%
* Profits at South African corporate and investment bank down
* Shares flat, recovering from early decline (Recasts, adds details, quotes, shares)
JOHANNESBURG, Aug 13 (Reuters) - A drop in earnings at Absa's South African corporate and investment bank took the shine off progress at its core domestic retail business as the lender reported a 5% rise in first-half profit on Tuesday.
Once a market leader, Absa has been trying to regain ground lost under the stewardship of former parent Barclays following its split from the British lender in 2017, but is battling with competition and a weak South African economy.
Its drive to regain retail banking market share at home and grow sales elsewhere in Africa helped boost headline earnings per share (HEPS) - the main profit measure in South Africa - to 918.4 cents ($0.6019) in the first half, against 877.8 cents in 2018.
"There's still a lot to do, but we are doing the right things and we are on the right road," interim chief executive Rene van Wyk told an investor call.
Absa is hoping its turnaround plan and a series of ambitious targets can help win back customers and investors' confidence.
Its South African retail division, which contributes more than half of its overall earnings and has lagged behind peers, grew earnings by 4%.
That was above the flat earnings at rivals Nedbank and Standard Bank, which struggled after a shock economic contraction and spike in unemployment to an 11-year high.
However, analysts said this - as well as 8% growth in Absa's earnings outside of South Africa - was undermined by a poor showing in other units. The bank's shares fell just over 1.5% at the market open, but were flat at 0957 GMT.
The lender's South African corporate and investment bank saw earnings decline 10%, while overall return on equity also fell and Absa revised down its guidance for this for the full year.
"I think the market is probably reacting to that," Harry Botha, analyst at Avior Capital Markets said, adding the results were below expectations due to the performance at the domestic corporate and investment bank.
Absa has also been without a permanent chief executive since February, when long-time boss Maria Ramos stepped down - a move which, while a surprise, was welcomed by analysts and investors keen for fresh thinking at the top.
It said at the time it would name her replacement by its half-year results. On Monday, it said it had identified a new CEO, who would start in the new year, but it could not give a name due to regulatory conditions.
Van Wyk said on Tuesday Absa was not expecting to name the person until January.
When normalized for the impact of the Barclays separation, Absa's overall HEPS were up 3%.
($1 = 15.2572 rand) (Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Uttaresh.V and Mark Potter)