They say that those who forget history are bound to repeat it, so be prepared for the financial supermarket to return with a vengeance. That's because the business media, no more rooted in the past than a June bug, have lost count of how many times we've been down this failed road before.Brace yourself for a moment before you read this lead of an Associated Press story: "The original financial supermarket is dead. Citigroup ( C) signaled the end of a decade-long experiment to create one-stop shopping for financial services -- everything from consumer loans to investment banking -- with Tuesday's announcement that it was merging its Smith Barney brokerage into a joint venture with Morgan Stanley." The Associated Press was not confused -- it was merely wrong. But this morning's Wall Street Journal was a bit confused, caught in a neat declaration that glosses over history and reality: "Mr. Weill started building what would become Citigroup with his 1986 purchase of Commercial Credit, a struggling consumer-finance company based in Baltimore. Over the next 12 years, he acquired ever-larger financial institutions. The 1998 deal that formed Citigroup, at the time one of the largest in history, was initially trumpeted as precedent-setting."
What is reality? Reality is that we've had a wave of financial supermarkets before, and they didn't work for some of the same reasons of disorganization and culture clash that felled Citigroup. Heck, I worked for one of the previous financial supermarkets, Shearson Lehman Brothers American Express. Read this from Time magazine in, uh, 1984: "The deal adds some important new aisles to the financial supermarket that American Express ( AXP) is assembling." Enough of memory lane. The point is that when Sandy Weill, who built this financial supermarket (and rebuilt it), retired nearly three years ago, the business media, in typical lifestyle mode, gave him a victory-lap sendoff. The Business Press Maven stood athwart this worshipful coverage, yelling, "Stop!" in articles such as " Maven: Weilling Away a Great Opportunity," saying that instead of writing up Weill's tan and poetry, the business media should instead take the opportunity to determine whether and why these serial attempts at creating a financial supermarket had failed. And here I looked at why it took the business media so long to grasp Citigroup's woes, even though the history of the financial supermarket (see, there was a history) was dismal. This failed financial supermarket was not the original. Even Weill himself was involved then re-involved in a previous financial supermarket that did not work out. Remember history when someone, quite possibly Weill, starts selling the concept in the future. And while we are on the subject of concepts, let's talk cars. And radio. The Business Press Maven was on NPR yesterday, pontificating about the difficult future of the auto industry. Hear all about it: " Fewer Hummers, More Hybrids at Auto Show: The North American International Auto show is underway in Detroit, but this year's show features fewer gas guzzlers and more electric cars. After being bailed out by the government, the auto industry is trying to build the car of the future, but some say the effort is too little, too late. Columnist Marek Fuchs explains what new to expect from the auto industry."