Meredith Whitney an Optimist? There Has to Be a Catch

Meredith Whitney
Meredith Whitney

Could things be getting so good in the US that even noted curmudgeon Meredith Whitney is finding reason to believe?

Answering such an improbable question requires perspective, as optimism from Whitney would be considered pessimism from most people.

Indeed, she still sees a strong likelihood of municipal bond defaults, anticipates another 10 percent drop in housing prices, and believes inflation poses a problem that is just over the horizon.

But in an interview with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, Whitney calls the US economy “dynamic and strong” and predicts a group of states will generate what she calls an emerging-market growth story right here in our own borders.

The (relatively) upbeat look begins with steps taken on the local and state governmental level to address pressing budget problems that could lead to defaults.

“[F]or the next couple of months, the markets should continue to do well,” Whitney said in the interview published on USA Today onlineover the weekend. “The more we can do to address fiscal austerity, the better our markets will do, and there is a real political shift to doing that.”

She also points to a “triangle” of states in the heartland that will benefit from higher oil prices and help put a floor under the economy. Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Texas make up the “emerging markets of the US,” which she says “is a composite of many different economies.”

Of course, she qualifies her remarks considerably with worries over what effect the housing market drag will have on the broader economy.

But the notion that she finds anything positive in her outlook is striking, considering her history both recent—her much maligned call for a hundred or more municipal defaults—and not as recent.

Whitney is the godmother of the financial crisis, having issued beforehand a now-famous report saying Citigroup was in huge trouble because of all the toxic financial junk corroding its financial picture.

The crisis launched her career as a rock-star analyst, and her proclamations now garner huge attention. So to hear her say that the markets will fare well at least in the short term is remarkable, even if she still remains a little more true to form over the long haul.

“You don’t have a lot of bad news through May and June,” she said. “And then you have some real challenges coming after June as housing starts to decelerate again as foreclosures resume and inventory really comes on the market. Investors who are looking for a strong second half may be disappointed. You may see a repeat of what happened last year. And inflation is a real issue.”

Whitney’s fears about housing prices have been borne out by the latest data released Monday.

Home sales fell 9.6 percent in February and prices dropped 5.2 percent, indicating that if hopes for a complete economic recovery remain tethered to the housing industry, then the US is far from in the clear.

Credit Suisse also said it anticipates tighter lending conditions for loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, which is raising its insurance premiums in a move that will hurt housing affordability.

Of course, as soon as the housing numbers came out, the market continued to rally, indicating there is no such thing as bad news anymore.

So the latest Whitney comments either indicate that there’s no sense being downbeat about the economy anymore—or that the last great bear has come in from the cold and a market capitulation on the upside is near, indicating an end to the rally.


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