Meredith Whitney’s Cloudy Crystal Ball
Meredith Whitney, prominent banking analyst at her self-named advisory group, should have worn a bib to protect her from the adoring drool supplied by Maria Bartiromo in a recent CNBC interview. Ms. Whitney has quickly become a banking rock star during this “Great Recession” period. She was right at a critical juncture, and as a result she was thrust into the limelight. Much like Abby Joseph Cohen, the perma-bull Goldman Sachs strategist who gained notoriety in the late 1990s, Whitney (the perma-banking bear) will continue having difficulty living up to the lofty expectations demanded of her.
Despite the accolades, Whitney’s crystal ball has gotten cloudy in 2009. I suppose accuracy is not very important, judging by her bottom-half 2007 ranking (year of her major Citigroup call) in recommendation performance and 48%-ile ranking in the first half of 2008. Analysts, much like reporters, can avoid looking dumb by reporting the news du jour and by following the herd. Whitney has followed this formula with her continuous bearishness on the financial sector, excluding a brief but late upgrade of Goldman Sachs in July. Not only was her analysis tardy (Goldman’s stock tripled from the 2009 bottom), but her call has also underperformed the S&P 500 index since the upgrade.
Like a bobbing and weaving wrestler (her husband John Layfield is a retired staged professional wrestler from the WWE), Whitney tries to concoct a completely mind-boggling narrative to explain her forecasts this year in the CNBC interview with Maria Bartiromo:
11/18/09 (XLF Price $14.60): “For the year, I have been at least ‘cover your shorts, go long.’ I haven’t been this bearish in a year.” (See Maria Bartiromo Interview)
Hmm, really? Are you kidding me? Wait a second…is this the same “go long” Meredith Whitney that expressed the following?
3/17/09: (XLF: 8.55 then, 14.60 now +71% ex-dividends): “These big banks are sitting on loans that were underwritten with bad math, and the stocks are going to go down…these stocks are uninvestable.”
(Fast forward to minute 8:20 for quote above)
2/4/09 (XLF: 8.97 then, 14.60 now +63% ex-dividends): “Investors should not even consider owning banks on an equity basis” (Click here and fast forward to minute 8:10 for quote).
The schizophrenic accounting of her postures are all the more confusing given her stance that the sector was “fairly valued” in October, according to the CNBC Bartiromo interview.
Don’t get me wrong, she made an incredible bearish call on Citigroup in the fall of 2007 and was expecting blood in the streets until a massive rebound in 2009 surprised her. Investors need to be wary of prognosticators that get thrust into the limelight (see Peter Schiff article) for a single prediction. The law of large numbers virtually guarantees a new breed of extreme forecasters will be rotated into the spotlight any time there is a major shift in the market direction. I choose to follow the footsteps of Warren Buffett and stay away from the game of market timing and market forecasts. I believe James Grant from the Interest Rate Observer states it best:
“The very best investors don’t even try to forecast the future. Rather, they seize such opportunities as the present affords them.”
Meredith Whitney may be a bright banking analyst and perhaps she’ll ultimately be proven right regarding the downward banking stock price trajectories, but like all bold forecasters she must live by the crystal ball, and die by the crystal ball.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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