The praise for “The Big Short,” a cinematic rendition of the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, has been quick and widespread. The Washington Post’s film critic Ann Hornaday called it “alternately ingenious and gratuitously quirky.” There’s already Oscar buzz and it received an 89 percent “liked it” audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The movie, adapted from Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, is the latest to try to explain the financial crisis, this time spotlighting some of the people who spotted the problems in the housing and mortgage markets before everyone else.
But the film, and several others in its genre, appears to gloss over one the financial crisis’ biggest heroes: Meredith Whitney.
Whitney rose to fame in 2007 as a research analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. Her sharp critique of Citigroup – it was under capitalized and might have to sell assets – caused the firm’s stock to tumble, wiping out $15 billion of Citigroup’s market value in a single day. Less than a week later, its CEO stepped down.
“From that moment, Meredith Whitney became E. F. Hutton: When she spoke, people listened. Her message was clear: If you want to know what these Wall Street firms are really worth, take a cold, hard look at these crappy assets they’re holding with borrowed money, and imagine what they’d fetch in a fire sale,” Lewis writes in the book. “The vast assemblages of highly paid people inside them were worth, in her view, nothing.”
She was heralded as the oracle of the financial crisis with investors hanging on her every word. “It is incredibly rewarding to have your analysis be right, to make people money and help people from losing money,” she told The Post in a 2007 interview.
But the road since has been bumpy. In 2009, she left Oppenheimer to start her own research firm, Meredith Whitney Advisory Group, then she tried to start a credit rating company. In 2010, she appeared on “60 Minutes” and predicted “hundreds of billions of dollars” of municipal bond defaults, helping fuel a wave of selling in that market.
The defaults didn’t happen and some began to question whether Whitney had lost her way.
In 2013, Whitney tried at her hand in the vanguard of Wall Street high finance, launching a hedge fund known as Kenbelle Capital. She received $50 million from a billionaire investor and for a while things appeared upbeat.
But that venture would eventually turn sour too. Earlier this year, one of Kenbelle’s main investors, BlueCrest Capital Management, sued for its money back. “Despite a rising U.S. stock market, the Fund has consistently underperformed, and its assets have declined since the Fund’s inception,” according to the complaint BlueCrest filed in New York. The suit was recently settled.
“This whole experience has been highly unfortunate and I’m putting it behind me,” Whitney said in a June interview with Fox Business.
Now Whitney, who could not be reached Wednesday for comment, is giving money management another try with Bermuda-based insurer Arch Capital Group where she will oversee a portfolio of about $800 million, according to Bloomberg.
Whitney’s experience since the meltdown shows how hard it is to be successful on Wall Street. But her rapid rise to prominence also shows the value of getting the big calls right. “The Big Short” may have forgotten her, but history shouldn’t.