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Meredith Whitney says unemployment will rise again

by Patricia Sellers

So, retail sales are up. Unemployment is down. And the Dow is near 11,000.

That doesn’t mean that all is right with the world.

So says Meredith Whitney.

The analyst who brought down the bank stocks in 2007–by shining the light on their capital shortfalls–came by Fortune‘s offices Wednesday afternoon to explain why she’s still a bear. I asked her: Will unemployment, now at 9.7%, likely go back up? “I think it has to,” she told us.

Pointing out that banks are still cutting credit lines (to the tune of $2.7 trillion by 2011, she predicts) and states are strapped financially (implying tax increases and service cuts to come), Whitney is betting against a bona-fide recovery. The ranks of the “un-banked”–Americans who can’t get credit cards or bank accounts–are rising. Wal-Mart is serving that population, building a big business in prepaid payment cards.

As for the financial-services stocks she covers, Whitney doesn’t have a “Buy” on a single one. She hasn’t since she downgraded Goldman Sachs to “neutral” last October. She had upgraded Goldman the previous July–and the shares rallied 35% in those three months. “We downgraded the stock at $190,” she noted, “and it hasn’t seen $190 since.”

Goldman is trading today around $180.

With government money propping the economy, “it’s really hard to be a fundamental analyst,” Whitney admitted. So she’s working harder than ever.



Photo: John Needham

Last evening, at her office in mid-town Manhattan, she gathered a couple dozen high-placed folks, mainly from Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women community–including Avon CEO Andrea Jung and the blog queen Arianna Huffington, here in this photo with Whitney (r) and me.

At 7:30 p.m., she left to grind the numbers–“I have to get back to work,” she told me. I awoke to find an email from her–sent at 2:27 a.m.

So, Whitney is on it–to decipher fact from spin across the financial system. Here she is talking with Fortune assistant managing editor Leigh Gallagher about Citigroup …

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And here’s Whitney on housing prices: “a double dip,” she predicts. Unless you’re betting against an economic recovery, this isn’t good news…

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