02.11.09

Top Seven Attention-Hungry Doomsayers

The banks are imploding! Your home is worthless! We’re all going to die! A new crop of Dr. Dooms are making careers out of scaring you.

So there you have it: With the news that both Obama’s stimulus plan and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s new bank-bailout plan are likely to go full steam ahead, the stock market reacted with a 300-plus point plunge. Investors, it seems, are finally wise to the fact that the global economy is in one hell of a bind, and a few hundred billion here or there won’t make a damn bit of difference.

It was only a few years ago, you will recall, that the stock market was pretty much a daily Pamplona—the Bulls were running, and they were a large pack indeed. Everyone was having a hell of a time watching the value of his or her portfolio climb to ever-greater heights. These days, it’s a different kind of stampede—the Bears are in charge now, and they’re soaking up the attention as they are periodically wont to do. Herewith, we present those bears you should be most afraid (or in awe) of.

(1) NOURIEL ROUBINI
New York University economics professor Nouriel Roubini is the suddenly ubiquitous forecaster of financial doom. While he’s been right—the same goes for the rest of this list, to give them all the props they so rightly deserve—the man hasn’t passed by a microphone he didn’t speak into in the past year, with his predictions of a total implosion of the banking industry. He’s worth listening to, but he’s also getting a little too used to the sound of his own voice.

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Chip East / Reuters

(2) MEREDITH WHITNEY
Who at this point hasn’t heard of Oppenheimer & Co.’s Meredith Whitney, the silver-tongued financial-services analyst who today strikes fear in the heart of banking executives? One of her latest zingers, in a recent New York Times article: “Because the banks haven’t been able to raise capital, the government has had to raise it for them.” Ouch! The light is shining so brightly on Whitney that she reportedly thought the best way to spend a recent vacation was at Bikini Boot Camp. You can never look too good under the cameras on CNBC, after all.

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(3) PETER SCHIFF
Peter Schiff of Euro Pacific Capital is locked in battle with the equally bearish Roubini over ownership of the moniker Dr. Doom. The two had dueling editorials on the same day in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back. May the bigger bear win! Schiff made waves with his prescient book Crash Proof in 2007, but a good chunk of his advice—to stash your portfolio in foreign stocks—has proven completely wrong. Give the man credit, however. He claimed from day one that owning US real estate was a fool’s game. Kudos, Mr. Schiff.

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David Levenson / Getty Images

(4) NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB
Self-styled financial philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the author of the wildly popular books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness and subject of countless fawning profiles of late. Taleb would probably like to think his books are at least a little unreadable by dint of the sheer amount complexity within. They are unreadable, but not for that reason. It’s more because the man can’t go more than a page without preening. Both he and Roubini strutted their stuff in Davos in January, trying to one-up each other with ever-more-dire forecasts.

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Brendan McDermid / Reuters

(5) JAMES GRANT
Much less visible than his more attention-seeking bear compatriots, Grant is the longtime author and editor of the market newsletter Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. He’s the guy who pops up during every market swoon pointing to the words of wisdom he’d once again been offering but which had once again been ignored. At $850 a year, it’s a costly newsletter, but worth every penny to those who pay attention to the bow-tied man’s prognostications.

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(6) JEREMY GRANTHAM
Jeremy Grantham is the guru of investment-management firm GMO. Like Grant, he is a man of bearish letters who doesn’t show his face that often. A recent missive began with the eloquent notion that, “The time to blame should be past, or at least in abeyance until the crisis is past, but I find it impossible to avoid it completely.” In other words, Grantham is pissed, too! His quarterly letters, available for free on the GMO website, are Warren Buffett-like in their educational quotient.

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(7) CHRISTOPHER WOOD
Christopher Wood is a Jim Grant for the subprime generation. He writes the report Greed & Fear for investment firm CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. The man’s in Asia, so we don’t even know what he looks like, but we like what we read. One of his latest intros: “It would be comical if it was not so pathetic.” He was talking about the “bad bank” concept being bandied about in Washington at the time. Full of insight and data, Wood’s missives are the antidote to those sick of reading Taleb writing about himself. You’ll need an account with his firm to get his newsletter, though, so pony up!

The Running of the Bears only happens every ten years or so, so you’ve got to give the likes of Roubini, Whitney, Schiff, and Taleb a break for seeking to monopolize our attention while they’ve got it. After all, nobody likes a pessimist, and we’ll tune them out as soon as we’re brave enough to do so. That said, the depth of the current crisis suggests this bear market may last a little longer than the last few, so get used to hearing their names. Taleb’s got at least one more book in him about how smart he is.

Of course, even a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day. If the likes of Whitney or Roubini want to truly cement their place in the history of financial prognostication, they will show the foresight to call a turn in the other direction, back to bullish conditions. Elaine Garzarelli made herself famous calling the 1987 crash. She never made another big one again.

Duff McDonald, a contributing editor at Conde Nast Portfolio and New York magazines, is working on a book about Jamie Dimon, to be published by Simon & Schuster in the fall of 2009.