Meredith Whitney’s View of the World
When Meredith Whitney, the Cassandra-like analyst of the financial-services industry, gathers a dozen rising-star women from across the developing world, you don’t get small talk. You don’t get happy talk either. “A View of the World” — the topic of a breakfast she hosted today at Manhattan’s Core Club — turned out to be a not-so-pretty picture.
I was there because the international women whom Whitney convened are all participants in this year’s Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. If you read Postcards regularly, you know that this program, which I co-chair, matches the best and brightest women leaders from across the developing world with America’s top women execs. This year’s mentors include Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore, Avon CEO Andrea Jung, and women leaders at ExxonMobil , Wal-Mart , American Express , Goldman Sachs …and Whitney too.
So for the past couple of weeks, Whitney has been hosting her mentee, Elly Tjan, a super-smart young woman who works for Indonesia’s central bank. But in these international women leaders broadly, Whitney saw a potential focus group for her research about the global financial crisis. So she pulled them together to talk.
Whitney kicked off this morning’s discussion by giving her view of what led to the global financial crisis: Local lending was the bedrock of the U.S. banking system, she said. Problems began and multiplied as banks consolidated. Lending moved from local to national — where risk moved outside the lender’s field of vision and control. Off-balance sheet financing spurred the securitization boom. By 2007, it was “la vida loca” in financial services, Whitney said. The securitization market collapsed in late 2007; chaos followed, and the government eventually stepped in.
“I think in the U.S. at least, the government will have to step in more and more and more,” Whitney warned.
She doesn’t see the U.S. economy recovering soon, largely because of the contraction in credit-card liquidity. “So far, over a trillion dollars worth of credit lines have been cut. I expect that to triple by 2010,” she told the group.
And the View of the World from the international women gathered? They said that the U.S. offers many lessons about how not to manage an economy.
Anuradha Mathur, a media boss and trained economist from India, noted that her country has learned that relying on exports for growth is risky. “You need to focus on domestic growth,” she said.
Monica Kalondo, who runs a private-equity firm in Namibia, said, “There was resentment against the U.S. A lot of that has been taken away by Obama.” Before the global meltdown, she said, her government had a budget surplus — and took flak from it own citizens because they wanted big spending on infrastructure, education and other bare necessities. Now the people of Namibia are thankful for the conservative approach. “Those voices have been more quiet now,” she said.
Rica Rwigamba, who operates a tourism company in Rwanda, said that her country has realized that it can’t rely on foreign aid. Her government’s view today: “Let’s generate growth from the people. Let’s be autonomous,'” she said.
All in all, the View of the World was that capitalism works — but with common sense and more limits on greed than America had until recently. “You should go to speak to Congress,” Whitney told the international leaders. “You are bigger capitalists than the people in Washington are.”