Pressed to predict which top 10 bank would be the first to name a female chief executive, and who would get the post, banking analyst Meredith Whitney pondered the question on stage Wednesday night for what seemed an interminably long time for the women bankers in the room.
And then: "I think it could happen at U.S. Bancorp," she said, eliciting an eruption of applause from the rather large U.S. Bancorp delegation to the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance dinner sponsored by U.S. Banker, a sister publication of American Banker. "I think there's not a bigger issue than the payments industry."
The rest was a foregone conclusion: "Pam Joseph," Whitney said, anointing U.S. Bancorp's Atlanta-based vice chairman for payment services.
At the end of the black-tie dinner, Joseph took a characteristically modest, aw-shucks approach to what had transpired in the packed ballroom at the Pierre Hotel in New York.
"I wouldn't read too much into it," she advised.
But recipients of Whitney's predictions ignore her words at their own peril. Remember the analyst's 2007 prediction that Citigroup Inc. would need to cut its dividend?
Whitney has continued to make waves since then, expanding the scope of her research and commentary since leaving Oppenheimer & Co., the firm where she worked when she gained rock-star status at the height of the credit crisis. She has since started Meredith Whitney Advisory Group LLC.
"I never had a dream of owning my own firm, but at other firms I ran into the same problems over and over again," she said, explaining that when she made the August 2008 cover of Fortune, she got no acknowledgement from her employer. "It really hurt my feelings, as schmarmy as that sounds," she said, reminding the audience of hundreds of female bankers and their supporters in the industry that "culture matters."
Whitney recently attracted plenty of recognition, including some criticism, for a report she released last month in which she warned of a looming crisis in municipal finance. The report was the product of two years' worth of research, said Whitney, who described the municipal bond market as "the most opaque, non-transparent, messed up" corner of the financial system.
"We believe very strongly that the U.S. economy is going to recover on a state-by-state basis," Whitney said. States overburdened with debt face a "flight risk," she said, with banks apt to gravitate to states with stronger credit profiles. "What bank is going to want to lend in Nevada?" she asked.
But Whitney said she remains bullish about certain aspects of the banking industry, including the payments and cash management businesses and the opportunity for companies that can find a way to reach the unbanked — a group she predicts will grow from about 26% of the population to a percentage in the mid-30s. "It's a jump ball for so many new entrants," she said.