Maven: Weilling Away a Great Opportunity

The media's gushing over Sandy Weill's Citigroup retirement missed the real story of his legacy.
Author:
Publish date:

In the disservice of investors, the business media tend to cover stories in two separate but equally useless ways. The first, and most common, is their

just-the-facts ma'am

default mode. It's the theology of every J-school graduate who, in the end, doesn't know the difference between a stock and a blonde.

Here's how it works: Earnestly attempt to assemble and regurgitate the basic, bald facts of the story. Stay clear of any frontal-lobe thought that would involve historical context or an attempted connection of the facts to any larger significance or truth.

And if you think this approach is airtight of anything that would advance a decent investor's understanding, it's probably better than the alternative. Welcome, Business Press Maven readers, to the horrible world that is the "lifestyle-ization" of the business profile.

Take this week's coverage of Sandy Weill's retirement --

please

.

The wily Weill formally retired from

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

at this week's annual meeting, handing his power marbles over to Charles Prince before going home. Now, Weill is one of the most intriguing and controversial dealmakers in modern history with one puzzling legacy that should be the talk of media and Wall Street -- at least the portion of this public that wants to learn for the future.

This deal-making genius' life's work can, in the end, be boiled down to one question: Does the financial supermarket work?

The answer is complicated.

Weill spent decades, through several business cycles, cobbling together a one-stop shop where customers could go to fulfill all their financial needs under one roof. It's a far-flung conglomerate with a common theme and it was always plugged as something that would change financial services as we know it.

So as Weill rode into the sunset this week, what was the media's educated, highly considered verdict? The Business Press Maven waited with bated breath for the answer, or at least enough of one to provoke thought.

And what did I read? That Weill had lost weight (he is laying off butter and bread!). And that he was tan! And that, with retirement looming, he has been sleeping better on Sundays! And he likes poetry! And he has a tendency to cry!

A whole bunch of nifty, happy talk later, with a chance to delve into the loaded and complex subject of Weill's legacy on television,

CNBC's

Maria Bartiromo lobbed some high cheese:

"What separated you from the rest?"

To which Weill responded: "My wife."

Awwww.

And then she told him a question: "Somebody said the other night you've made so many people in this country so much money and, really, so much richer in terms of wealth as well as just the quality of life working with you."

To which Weill, having received the verbal massage, responded: "I think that's the smartest thing -- I'm glad you brought that up."

In what was a surreal take on a serious subject, Bartiromo even asked how Weill felt, in a sort of touch-feely therapized way, when the feds told him he couldn't do any more acquisitions.

You know how emotional one can get when the feds come knocking.

Which brings The Business Press Maven to Weill's legacy. Weill will be 100 notches up in the history books from Jimmy Ling, known somewhat derisively as "The Takeover King" when, in the 1960s, he leveraged his

LTV

into something bigger but not, alas, better. Ling's conglomerate fell under its own weight.

Weill's conglomerate is more focused and, for a long time, performed snazzily -- at least, for shareholders. More recently, though, that has

not been the case. More focused financial firms have outperformed, as Citigroup has had operational and regulatory trouble, in part because while the wily Weill could buy companies of whittled value, the sum of the parts was not easy to manage over the long haul.

So here's his legacy, as seen by The Business Press Maven: Weill was a great purchaser, who shrewdly found undervalued companies back when there were self-respecting bear markets. He controlled costs, with a frugality that is rare on Wall Street. What he built and presided over with a green eyeshade earned a nice multiple for a good many years. Weill was also remarkably charitable. But as far as the long-term efficacy of the financial supermarket, The Business Press Maven is not sold.

The sort of regulatory and organizational problems that have settled in over the last few years are a product of too many moving parts. Forget the supermarket. Think chains of corner stores. But whatever you do: Don't take diet tips from a billionaire.

Clown Parade, Reprise

It seems that only on the subject of

Federal Open Market Committee

meetings does the business press take the facts and try to draw a conclusion. Only, as The Business Press Maven has

pointed out until he turned blue in the gills, they have consistently been wrong in exactly the same way -- with overblown, intellectually thin confidence that rates will be frozen where they are.

Again this week, the media jumped on the bandwagon of giddy early trader reaction and to an FOMC transcript all but declared rate increases dead on Tuesday. Dying a thousand deaths is more like it. Oil and gold are headed to the moon and the Fed, as always, said that rates should be determined by future economic data -- which will presumably reflect those high commodity prices.

Sure enough, the next day, the inflation numbers didn't look great and some of this confidence dissipated. As has The Business Press Maven's time.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial website twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children.