The Pundit Who Bruised Citibank
Monday, November 12, 2007
NEW YORK -- Late last month, a spirited analyst published a highly critical report on Citigroup, saying it was woefully undercapitalized and might have to sell off assets or cut dividend payments to shareholders.
The report by Meredith Whitney, a 37-year-old Bethesda native, triggered a 7 percent plunge in Citigroup stock, which helped to reignite broader investor fears about lingering weaknesses in financial markets from the summer's credit crunch. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 362 points or 2.6 percent, its fourth-worst trading day of the year.
"Making a negative call on Citigroup was a major call, and I took it very seriously," Whitney, of CIBC World Markets, said in an interview last week. "I knew that it would be a major event. I'm not sure I expected the market event."
Whitney's downgrade of Citigroup to "sector underperform" -- Wall Street lingo for "sell" -- came after a long and painful decline of the bank's stock and followed similar downgrades by other analysts. Whitney's report captured the most attention, in part because it was published at a vulnerable time for companies in the financial services sector that she covers and also because of the grim picture she laid out for Citigroup.
In a matter-of-fact tone, unlike her sometimes colorful comments to the financial press and as a frequent guest on Fox News, Whitney made the case in her report that Citigroup's capital levels were worse than the market believed. In doing so, she employed a calculation of capitalization, tangible capital ratio, different from the measure used by Citigroup but one she argued was more accurate given the uncertainty over the true value of the assets on the books of financial institutions.
"Our thesis is simple," she wrote. "We believe Citigroup will need to raise over $30 billion in capital as a result of its tangible capital ratios falling to the lowest levels in decades, now standing at almost half their peer group average at just 2.8 percent."
Her report helped wipe out in one day $15 billion of the market value of Citigroup, the country's largest bank and whose stock is widely held among individual and institutional investors.
The spotlight on Whitney comes after high-profile scandals involving Wall Street analysts and subsequent regulation have diminished the pay and profile of financial analysts. At the height of the dot-com bubble, several analysts were accused of publicly touting stocks that they derided in private as junk in order to win investment banking business from favored clients. Subsequent lawsuits and settlements led to reforms, including a Securities and Exchange Committee rule that forbade firms from tying analysts' compensation to certain investment banking work.
But now, in an uncertain market landscape, some analysts like Whitney have returned to center stage as investors look for guidance in navigating the potential minefields on the balance sheets of major financial institutions.
While she could do without the angry messages, Whitney revels in the high-paced field of finance, where she holds conference calls with dozens of portfolio managers seeking her input and interviews chief executives extolling the virtues of their Fortune 500 companies. After all, Whitney, a graduate of Brown University and the Madeira School in McLean, got into the business precisely because it's a pressure cooker.
"In D.C., politics is the most competitive business," said Whitney, whose father worked in the Commerce Department in the Nixon administration. She interned on Capitol Hill as a teenager and volunteered for Bob Dole's presidential campaign. "I wanted to be in the most competitive industry, and that was finance. And so I moved to New York to do it. . . . All I've wanted from as long ago as I can remember is to be surrounded by very smart, competitive people, and to earn that right."
After 15 years in the business, Whitney, ranked No. 2 in her category on Forbes's stock picker list, says she gets a thrill out of making the right call. She reads five newspapers at the gym before arriving in her Manhattan office by 7 a.m. "It is incredibly rewarding to have your analysis be right, to make people money and help people from losing money," she said.