Meredith Whitney is the lightning-rod banking analyst who once shocked Wall Street and prompted a $40 billion sell-off. It's hard to believe she has ever been “intimidated ” by anything. But she was, she confessed, when she was first starting in the business.
Whitney rocked the financial world when, in 2007 at the age of 38, she predicted the mortgage bond bust. The Wall Street analyst wrote the most bearish of bearish reports on Citigroup and issued a timely - and what turned out to be prescient - outlook that the bank would be hard hit by the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.
The call shattered investor confidence in the bank and in the entire industry.
“I didn't think that people would care as much as they did. And I didn't think it would be the call that tripped the wires of the financial market,” she said. “I was hardly the toast of the town when I made the Citi call.”
It was the call that put her on the map and forced Citi’s CEO Chuck Prince out of his job.
“The day that it was released,” she said, “I had some pretty (bad) things said about me…and I wasn't used to that. I wasn't used to the attention. I think it just made me even more reclusive than I already am and more focused.”
That focus resulted in her being thrust back into the spotlight.
In December, 2010 in a widely watched “60 Minutes” interview, she made a call that some would call "alarmist". She predicted that 50 to 100 “sizable” defaults would occur in the nation’s towns, cities and counties. What frightened most investors was her timing: “It’ll be something to worry about within the next 12 months.” Investors pulled an estimated $25 billion from the municipal bond market over the next few months. To date, her call has proved to be wrong.
In her new book, “Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity,” Whitney tells her side of the story and continues to defend her call. “Muni bonds did increase 400 percent in 2011 to $25 billion from $5 billion in 2010...But for the record, I never said those fifty to a hundred defaults would all happen in 2011, which was how my critics spun the story.”
In an interview with “Off the Cuff,” a candid Whitney said, “I have moments of doubt all the time. What I love about this industry is…you get humbled multiple times a day.”
Now running her own firm, Meredith Whitney Advisory Group LLC, she is bullish on the nation’s heartland. She says there is a “new map of prosperity'' emerging in the wake of the bust, with jobs and growth moving away from the coasts and toward states in the Midwest and Mountain West.
“What was clear to me was that the housing scars were so deep that they were going to affect different areas much more severely than others,” she said. Her new call: Don’t go West or head for the East Coast. Instead, she writes, move to places like Texas that offer more affordable housing, lower taxes and more economic growth.
As for running her own shop, she admits it’s a bit of an adjustment and has its challenges. “Working for yourself is not for everybody. But it gives you an incredible amount of freedom… managing is the single hardest part of the job, of anything.”
When she's not working, she savors her time with her husband, former professional wrestler John “Bradshaw” Layfield—known to his fans as the “Death Mask.” The two have been married since 2005. Whitney's accustomed to having her name in the financial papers and being on TV, but she says that she's out and about with her husband, she enjoys being upstaged. “Where we are on the weekends, people don't know who I am. And they don't care. But they know who he is. And they really do care. And it's fun,” she said.
Their romance began after she received some life-changing advice from none other than a New York City cabbie. “I had no idea how I started a conversation about my love life with a taxi driver. But…he said, ‘Figure out what you want, write a list. And you'll get it.’ And I wrote a list…I met exactly what I wanted—not in the packaging that I expected, but exactly in the quality that I expected. “
Now at 43, she said she’s very happy, with a great husband, a circle of close friends and a demanding job. Does she have it all?
“None of us think we have it all. You want to be really happy with what you have,” she said. “But then keep trying to do better.”