The inevitable happened last week. Meredith Whitney, she of the blonde hair and bearish predictions, hit the cover of Fortune magazine. It was the logical next step for the Oppenheimer & Co. analyst, who had already been dubbed "the Jeremiah of the financial crisis" by CNNMoney. With her dire predictions about the future of banking looking more prescient every day and her youngish face gracing CNBC with increasing regularity, it was only a matter of time before serious hagiography would begin.
And what a hagiography it is. By now, Whitney's marriage to pro wrestler John Layfield is legendary. But Fortune has unearthed other allegedly telling details about the woman it has called "Wall Street's toughest analyst." Whitney had a paper route when she was eight. She works out twice a day -- sometimes with the same personal trainer as rapper 50 Cent. She doesn't drink coffee. She's a workaholic. She leads conga lines. And, oh, yeah, she's been to Bikini Boot Camp.
What all this has to do with Whitney's analytic prowess, we have no idea. But in these celebrity-obsessed times, we suppose factoids like those make her more cover-worthy then, say, banking's other popular prophet of doom, Richard X. Bove, who is 67, balding and plies his trade from his Lutz, Fla., abode. Indeed, on the same morning Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer unveiled his Whitney cover on CNBC -- it was like he was revealing a lottery winner -- Bove had to content himself with a profile in The New York Times. While that's pretty good on the pub scale, it pales in comparison to having the CNBC crew gush about how rare it is to see an analyst grace the cover of Fortune.
Of course, other analysts have made it to the Fortune cover, including, most famously, Sallie Krawcheck, whom the magazine dubbed "the last honest analyst" in 2002. Like Whitney, Krawcheck was female, blonde, attractive and 30-something -- what a co-inky-dink! -- and while she might not have attended Bikini Boot Camp, she was a cheerleader and track star. (A decidedly non-blonde and scowling Mary Meeker also made it to Fortune's cover in 2001 next to the question "Can We Ever Trust Wall Street Again?") Less than 12 months later, Krawcheck reappeared on the cover, in her new job as CEO of Smith Barney. Both times, she was used to illustrate the magazine's "All-Star Analysts" issue -- a consumercentric ranking Fortune launched in 2000 to rate analysts mostly on their stock-picking skills.
Looking at those pieces today is instructive because of how much emphasis the magazine -- like the rest of the media -- has historically put on investment performance when evaluating and feting favorite analysts. ("Stock jocks with the picks to prove it" is what one Fortune story in 2001 dubbed its all-stars.) But for Whitney, it's more than willing to drop that emphasis. It mournfully explains, "Whitney's insights haven't always translated into lucrative investment picks" and notes that her stock picking ranked 1,205th out of 1,919 equity analysts last year and 919th out of 1,917 through the first half of 2008. But not to worry, chirps Fortune: "That said, evaluating Whitney solely on the timing of her buys and sells misses the point. It's not just that she's bearish on the entire banking industry. What makes Whitney so interesting is the brutality of her arguments and the evidence she summons in making them."
We don't disagree with Fortune's contention that evaluating Whitney on her stock-picking record "misses the point." Indeed, this column has long argued that ranking analysts based on investment performance is useless or worse. After all, at the height of the Internet boom, analysts who followed that sector looked great. Moreover, analysts were never meant to be stock pickers to the public -- aka Fortune readers. Their main job is to provide analysis and market intelligence to fund managers, not just yell buy or sell.
With its celebration of Whitney, Fortune, perhaps without even realizing it, seems to be inching over to this camp. Indeed, to prove Whitney's influence, the mag offers up her "following among money managers who treat her latest research reports like gospel." That's funny. Fortune not long ago criticized Institutional Investor's research rankings for relying on analysts' popularity with money managers rather than their stock-picking skills. Post-Whitney, Fortune may no longer see that as such as bad idea after all.