Thursday, July 22, 2010

(No.104) Rooting for Conrad Black

My initial experience with members of the English aristocracy came during my first year as an undergraduate at Carleton University in Ottawa.

I shared a room in residence with Esmond Cooper-Key, the son of a Conservative MP at Westminster and the grandson of Viscount Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail newspaper in London. 'Coop', as I took to calling him, had been temporarily exiled to Canada by his family as the result of an embarrassing incident or three. He was a charming and unassuming product of the English upper class and many years later, when I saw Hugh Grant's character in Four Weddings and a Funeral, my first thought was how much that character reminded me of Coop.

On the other hand there was the Hon. Patrick Shaughnessy, heir to one of the handful of English peerages of 'Canadian' origin, who hung around our room at Carleton like a bad smell because of my upper class roommate from England. He never became the 4th Baron Shaughnessy but he was a prat when I knew him. I remember one evening I threatened to do him bodily harm when he extinguished his cigarette by grinding it out on the floor of our dorm room with his shoe. He picked up the butt.

Which brings me to Lord Black of Crossharbour or Conrad Black as he was until elevated to the peerage in 2001. We were both history majors at Carleton University at the same time but we were not friends or even acquaintances. We were both students and admirers of the magnificent history professor Naomi E.S. Griffiths who later became Dean of Arts at Carleton.

While I went on from Carleton to a varied career doing some of this and a bit of that, Conrad Black went on to build a business empire. However he did not lessen his interest in history and historiography. He wrote 3 excellent volumes of history: three thoroughly researched biographies of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis and U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Rickard Nixon.

Through the years I watched, listened and read of Black including the ideological posturing into which he seemed prone to fall. I thought then and now that his political views, while articulately put, were sometimes too similar to the sort of risible stuff I heard from American right wingers. I sometimes felt he knew better but was bent on playing a role for a particular audience. But whether it was a view with which I agreed or not, I enjoyed his arguments. He was always interesting.

After he had plead not guilty in 2005 to the dozen plus charges laid against him by the U.S. government he never appeared to waiver in his declaration of his innocence either before or after he was convicted. Nor did his confidence that he would eventually be vindicated seem to erode.

Few people believed legal victory possible much less likely and even fewer spoke up publicly on his side. His circle of friends and supporters seemed to shrink by the week. Indeed many in the media and elsewhere seemed to take great pleasure in joining the anti-Black pile on. After he began serving a 6 1/2 year prison sentence in March of 2008 the virtually unanimous opinion of the columnists and talking heads was -- this is the end; game over; bye bye Conrad.

After Black's appeal of his conviction on four of the charges was dismissed in June 2008 by the U.S. Appeals Court I cannot recall one publicly expressed 'expert opinion' that there was any real chance that the U.S. Supreme Court would agree even to hear Black's appeal much less, if they did, that they would issue a favourable ruling. But as we now know, they did -- as Black had predicted.

And this week after 28 months of imprisonment (and not in a 'country club' prison) Conrad Black was granted bail and he left that prison in Coleman Florida this past Wednesday. It has been amusing since the Supreme Court decision -- and especially since his having been granted bail this past week -- to watch the talking heads and opinion leaders (who had been so consistently wrong and dismissive of Black) forming choirs to sing publicly new tunes about him.

While I do not claim to have foreseen Conrad Black beating the legal odds against him so dramatically I can say that I consistently admired his self-confidence and unapologetic stance in the face of adversity. Even after he went to prison this attitude continued to be on public display through his newspaper columns in the National Post.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear his appeal I sent Black an email. It is as good an explanation as any of why I rooted for him. I wrote, in part:

"... I have intended for some time to write to you to express not my sympathy but my admiration for your unbending commitment to your publicly expressed views of innocence and most of all -- I suppose -- for your refusal to seek sympathy from the public or the court with insincere declarations suggestive of some sort of conversion on a road to Damascus. My impression is that you have not sacrificed your pride or dignity in response to what for many would have been irresistible pressure to bend if not break. ... I wish you well and the continued strength of spirit and intellect which you have so steadfastly demonstrated."

Conrad Black has been widely perceived and often characterized as arrogant and unsympathetic. This seems overdone to me but, whether disliked by many people or not, he is a Canadian except on paper and to say otherwise is too precious by half given the fact that Jean Chretien forced him (unnecessarily) to give up his citizenship in order to accept a peerage in England where he lived part of the year and did business.

Black is the sort of Canadian I have always had time for. This is so for the same sorts of reasons I like Canadians as diverse as Don Cherry, Rick Salutin and the late Tommy Douglas. They are/were self-confident, assertive and willing to take a position they believe in almost without regard to whether some or many people like it or not.

They seem to me, and I include Lord Black among this type of Canadian, incapable of being intimidated. When I think of Canadians historically, whether in war or when playing hockey, this has been an admirable and highly Canadian trait.

Alastair Rickard


(No.105) Making money in a race to the bottom

The financial services analysts, media et al, the experts I have dubbed the financial services paparazzi (see, column No.46 "Manulife, Sun Life & shop-worn insights") are getting ready to pronounce on the 2nd quarter 2010 results of the major Canadian life insurance companies -- to be unveiled in early Aug.

Analysts' predictions of what those results should/will be will reappear like bees in amber once the results are out and cited as reference points for company success -- or not. This world of confident assertion has long interested me as both a journalist and industry executive because so many of the financial services paparazzi appear to have such a tenuous hold on what the life insurance business is about, at root: i.e., selling stuff.

But even when a kernel of basic life insurance business reality creeps into a report, however belatedly, it tends to stop short of providing realistic analysis of core operational issues. For example: a mid-July piece in the Globe and Mail Report on Business about the forthcoming second quarter results and the predictions of various analysts actually concluded with a brief allusion to the possible relevance of individual policy pricing to the making of a profit.

In fact the declining average premium charged per thousand of life insurance death benefit coverage (i.e., related to under-pricing of a great deal of individual risk ) has been a feature of much of the Canadian industry since the early 1970s. This pattern has been both encouraged and to a significant extent sustained by the ongoing "reinsurance war" -- as I referred to it in numerous editorials in the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance. The competition for reinsurance market share among the big international 'exclusive' reinsurance companies ('the pros') both stimulated and helped increase the allowances (i.e., subsidies) paid by the pros to the issuing life companies. They made real the onset and continuation of the race to the bottom in policy pricing.

Not all that long ago there were nearly a dozen reinsurance companies active in Canada, a few of them Canadian-controlled. However the competition in this part of the life insurance business has continued for so long and grown so intense, pervasive and irrational that, as a recent correspondent quite accurately pointed out (see the third letter in column No. 100) a dangerously high proportion of individual policy life risk in Canada [77% in 2008] is now reinsured AND reinsured with just 3 international companies: Swiss Re, Munich Re & RGA Canada.

The Canadian public is unaware of the extent to which the insurance on their lives is actually NOT in the hands of the dozens of retail life companies from which they bought their policies and assumed were carrying the insurance on their lives but rather on the books of three foreign companies which given, say, the potential conjunction of two or three major disasters affecting their non-life and/or life business could face a threat to their financial health. The blame for this dangerous situation can be spread widely, including among insurance regulators.

There are many factors contributing to this state of affairs and to the presence of billions of dollars of risk on the books of companies which is under-priced and therefore under-reserved and, for the issuing companies, offers too little margin or in some cases none at all. Not the least of the factors of interest to me has been the stampede in this decade by the biggest Canadian companies after they demutualized (Mutual, Manulife, Sun and Canada) to stop selling participating policies.

Why? Because the priority, some would argue the only real priority for the boards and senior managements of stock life companies, became to please the market, the shareholders; policyholders are merely clients. And because in Canada life insurance company shareholders are only permitted to share in a small proportion of the profits generated by participating policies. Indeed for that very reason -- the financial aggrandizement of shareholders at the expense of policyholders -- there are examples of a company's par policyholder fund being allocated an inappropriate share of a company's expenses.

It is interesting that among Canadian stock life insurance companies, one stands out for the sale of par policies -- London Life. This developed as part of the London Life culture over decades when the company was controlled and directed by the Jeffrey family. Subsequent corporate owners have wished this to be less the case and have worked to make it so but it is a lingering part of the sales culture of London's career agency system. Indeed under the former control of the Jeffrey family London Life was, in my view, operated as much like a mutual company as any stock company could be in terms of its treatment as a priority of the interests of both its par policyholders and its agents. I once put this view to former federal Supt. of Insurance K.R. MacGregor -- and he agreed with me.

Participating par policies and the par dividend mechanism provide a way for both the issuing life insurance company and its policyholders to benefit even as times and investment experience change. The Mutual Life of Canada (before it demutualized, became Clarica Life and was taken over by Sun Life) sold virtually nothing but par policies. Even its Universal Life policies were designated as participating, a fact that allowed Mutual's UL policyholders to benefit from both of its special ownership dividends in the years preceding demutualization [when the practise of mutuality by Mutual Life was re-emphasized under CEO Jack Masterman] and ultimately through the allocation of shares in the demutualized company [Clarica Life] to Mutual's par policyholder-owners.

Sun Life's Canadian operation, like Malcolm Muggeridge rediscovering Jesus, is currently engaged with the matter of a successful introduction of a par whole life policy -- back to the future. More than anything else this strikes me as a response to interest and demand from its Canadian career agents, many of whom have been in the business long enough to know about both the strength and appeal of par policies.

The fiscal implications of 'financial reinsurance' and related financial games played (with regulatory permission) by life insurance companies in Canada and elsewhere apparently make it difficult for those outside the industry to appreciate how too many companies have been engaged for too long in a race to the bottom in policy pricing, in a competition based on attracting new life business with under-priced and (too often) over-compensated policies. This race has been, as much as anything, about public [investor] perception of short term success in growing Canadian market share while soliciting 'attaboys' from analysts based on total sales numbers rather than any actual likelihood of long term profitability on the policies sold. Major industry changes should have been prompted long since. But that's a story for another column.

Remember: when the quarterly earning numbers come out next week for the big Canadian life insurance companies the interesting company stories hardly lie merely with whether or not a shareholder dividend was off by a dime or two from what some security firm analyst had predicted. Rather it will be wrapped up in such things as whether or not, using Sun Life as the example, its Canadian operation (on whose ongoing churning out of a disproportionately large share of Sun's worldwide profit the company continues to depend) is selling enough profitable policies to enough Canadians -- and is likely to continue doing so.

I have commented extensively on the problems I see in the Canadian life insurance industry and in particular the reasons for the declining effectiveness of the Mutual Life/Clarica Life career agency system since it was taken over by Sun Life. I won't rehearse the reasons here.

On Nov. 9, 2009, at the conclusion of a 5 column series on Sun Life (, column Nos. 50,52,60,61 & 62), I observed that "Sun Life still has in place in Canada the essential elements of a successful career agency distribution system. ... It remains to be seen whether the potential of Sun Life's career system wll be enhanced or dissipated."

Recent signs are encouraging.

Since the return in January 2010 of Kevin Dougherty to head Canadian operations the general situation in Sun's Canadian operation is improving, including the performance of Sun's Canadian career agency distribution and, vitally important to sales growth, career agent morale and their attitude to Sun Life itself. While Dougherty was never in the agency system in the field he has demonstrated an instinctive understanding of and empathy for career agents, their role and its importance to clients and the company.

As a matter of direct knowledge I can say that this is not an act by Dougherty (as it so often is by industry executives who have vocational reasons for pretending to like agents and brokers and relate to them). Such executive pretence is almost always counter-productive since most agents have highly developed bullshit detectors. Sun career agents came to like Dougherty and have been pleased to see him back. He and senior players in Sun's Canadian Individual operation ( Kevin Strain and Vicken Kazazian in particular) seem to have stopped the decline and begun the climb back for Sun's Canadian career distribution, in turn the foundation on which rests much of Sun's reliable present and future profitability.

However it is still early days and it remains to be seen if Sun Life is now really prepared to invest appropriately over time in the enhancement and growth of its main Canadian agency distribution system. So, the opening of the champagne should be put on hold but the more recent 'Sun signs' analysts ought to be noting in this respect are positive -- regardless of what the short term result looks like based on Q2.

Alastair Rickard


Thursday, July 15, 2010

(No.103) Spies, masks & coffins

Alan Furst, an American magazine writer and columnist, took a trip to the Danube in 1983 to research an article for Esquire. So interested did he become in the area, its atmosphere and history that he was inspired to begin writing Night Soldiers, a book eventually published in 1988.

It was not his first novel (today he seems to more or less disown his earlier books) but it became the first in a highly successful series of novels -- 11 so far* -- set in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a genre he refers to as historical espionage fiction and it is an apt description. It is not a genre he invented but it is one of which he is a master.

Furst embraces being regarded as a genre novelist and all of his novels beginning in 1988 through his latest, Spies of the Balkans (just published by Random House), are set in Europe. If I had to choose favourites among his novels, those with Paris as the main locus would head my list.

The novels are based not only on Furst's extensive research but also on his time spent living in Europe and travelling there extensively. Whether a reader has visited Paris or Vienna or Salonika (the latter being the principal setting of Spies of the Balkans) his novels transport one to the time and place with extraordinary effect. An authentic atmosphere is more deeply and consistently evoked than by most other novelists currently writing who come to mind.

I don't remember which of Furst's historical espionage novels I first read but I became enthralled immediately. I read the others as quickly as I could lay my hands on them and have eagerly awaited the publication of each new one every two years or so. The next, apparently to be titled Enchanted Stranger, is due in 2012.

Here is a taste of Furst's writing style, introducing readers to Costa Zannis, the lead character of Spies of the Balkans, just returned to his hometown in Greece after several years in Paris:

" Back in Salonika, and urgently needing to make a living, he took a job as a policeman. He didn't much care for it but he worked hard and did well. ... By 1934 he was promoted to detective and, three years later, to, technically, the rank of sub-commander, though nobody ever used that title. This advancement did not just happen by itself. An old and honored expression, from the time of the Turkish occupation, said that it was most fortunate to have a barba sto palati, an uncle in the palace, and it turned out, to Zannis's surprise, that he had that very thing. His particular talent, a kind of rough diplomacy, getting people to do what he wanted without hitting them, had been observed by the head of the Salonika police, a near mystic presence in the city."

Perhaps the novelists to whom Alan Furst has most often been compared are the Englishmen Graham Greene (1904- 1991) and Eric Ambler (1909-1998). Although far from all of either writer's novels can be labelled 'historical espionage fiction' in the way that Alan Furst's are, several can.

Greene's novella, The Third Man (1950), is set in a post-war Vienna the policing of whose ruins is divided among the four allies. It was actually written not for publication but as the first step of Greene's drafting of a script for the classic movie of the same name directed by Carol Reed, produced by Alexander Korda and starring Orson Welles.

Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) moves from Turkey pre-war into the Balkans and then to Paris. It was published as A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S. and made into a movie in 1944. It is regarded by some as the best of Ambler's 19 novels.

Both the Greene and Ambler novels are in print in paperback: The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Vintage,2005); A Coffin For Dimitrios (Vintage,2001).

A reader of Furst's espionage novels will not only enjoy these two novels by Greene and Ambler but cannot fail to be impressed by how favourably Furst's writing and plots compare with those of these two English novelists. In particular I suggest reading Ambler's Dimitrios either right after or just before Furst's latest as they both involve settings in the Balkans and Turkey. In terms of contemporary historical novelists I rank Furst on a par with his fellow American David Liss, the author of several superb books of historical fiction such as A Conspiracy of Paper.

Alan Furst's novels are not 'spy thrillers' . They are works of literary quality with plots of complexity and characters with texture. I have long since begun reading them again.

* The 11 historical espionage novels written by Alan Furst thus far:

Night soldiers (1988), Dark Star (1991), The Polish Officer (1995), The World at Night (1996), Red Gold (1999), Kingdom of Shadows (2000), Blood of Victory (2003), Dark Voyage (2004), The Foreign Correspondent (2006), The Spies of Warsaw (2008), Spies of the Balkans (2010).


Alastair Rickard


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

(No.102) Historical amnesiacs & the Queen of Canada

During the Queen of Canada's just concluded visit (her 22nd) there were the predictable comments and poll results calling into question both Canadians' support for the monarchy and its relevance to Canada.

Polls indicate that this attitude is held by a third or more of respondents depending on the poll and the phrasing of the question. For example, a question about support for the monarchy elicits a different level of support than one which invites a negative answer, as did the wording of a recent polling question which queries respondents' support for a monarchy that is "a relic of our colonial past that has no place in Canada today".

To the extent that support for the monarchy is actually declining in Canada useful explanation is infrequent. Instead one gets served up precious references to Canada's 'changing demographics', the inappropriateness of the 'Queen of England' having any role in Canada, the relevance of the monarchy in the 21st century and the like.

Citizen understanding of the role of the monarchy is not improved by tabloid-style references, when discussing Canada's form of government, to the private lives of members of the Queen's family. But then such irrelevances tend to be made by those who do not seem to understand the difference between being a monarchist and a celebrity groupie.

Nor is respect fostered by puerile and inaccurate public references to the Queen of Canada, not uncommon among advocates of a Canadian republic (e.g., "that German woman, Elizabeth", Globe and Mail, letters, July 2 ,2010). In passing, a question: would the Globe publish a letter or column referring to a black public figure whose ancestors came here 300 years ago from the Caribbean as "that Jamaican woman"? About as likely as their editorializing against Toronto's Gay Pride Parade.

A relevant question but one rarely posed in the media is this: how can Canadians, especially those who are new or younger, develop an understanding of the relevance and importance of the Queen's role in Canada's system of government, its Westminster origins, its evolution and today's crown-in-parliament when schools and media alike do so little to foster useful understanding of their history or contextual place in Canada's governance?

Across Canada high school students are not, as they once were, required to take a full program of history courses. It is unusual if a provincial educational system requires a high school graduate to have passed more than a single history course -- and even then it will likely have taken the form of 'social studies' or 'civics' designed in the hope that students might find it 'interesting' and not be turned off by having to learn too many facts. As one who taught in high school and university it seems to me that the teaching of history, even a basic but useful form of political science-related Canadian history, has long since become inadequate in content, context, degree of difficulty and number of courses required.

The other day I heard Andrew Cohen, the president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, lament that so many Canadians are "historical amnesiacs". While I am sympathetic to that view, the use of the word amnesiacs implies there was once historical knowledge acquired but since forgotten.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in the way of intelligent discussion of the monarchy in Canada is the low level of public literacy about Canadian history and government. One indication is the result of the Dominion Institute's 10 year benchmark study (2007): 82% of Canadians age 18-24 failed a basic Canadian history test, 1% more than had failed the test a decade before.

To what extent should one rely on the assumption that, say, a 20 year old Canadian will have an informed opinion for a pollster about whether there is value in the fact that Canada is a constitutional monarchy with Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada?

Consider the following, for example, from the Dominion Institute's surveys:

-- only 21% of Canadians know that the Queen is Canada's head of state but 75% know that the American president is the U.S. head of state. (What's even sadder is that in the same history quiz Canadians had a higher average % of correct answers on questions about the United States (47%) than they did on parallel questions about Canada -- 42%),

-- 42% believe that the prime minister is Canada's head of state and more than half of Canadians (51%) think that we elect our own prime minister directly, and

-- 42% of younger Canadians, presented with a choice among 3 answers describing Canada's form of government, did NOT choose "constitutional monarchy".

What are the chances that one will understand, much less value, something about which one does not know even basic facts?

Some commentators seem eager to assert a generation gap between those supporting the monarchial form of government in Canada and those who do not, as well as asserting an increase in Canadians who find the monarchy "uninspiring" or "irrelevant". How could it be otherwise? Is it realistic to expect someone who is tone deaf to embrace classical music appreciation? Is it sensible to direct a latent congregant to believe in a religion with the tenets of which he is unfamiliar?

Finally, here is a dry but relevant fact to be shared with those Canadians who (a) want and expect to see Canada become a republic, and/or (b) are among the fact-deprived in terms of civic literacy: the abolition of Canada's constitutional monarchy (a form of government many of us still firmly believe to be a great benefit and advantage) will require the approval of both houses of parliament and the approval of every provincial legislature.

Before that distant day arrives and the advocates of this constitutional change have the opportunity to salute a Canadian republic, I confidently predict there will have been more than ample time to (1) reform the teaching of history, and (2) for most Canadians to have read up on Canadian history and governance. I admit that neither seems likely to occur. But then neither does the abolition of Canada's constitutional monarchy in my lifetime.

Alastair Rickard


Saturday, July 3, 2010

(No.101) Agents & the agency system: more comments

The previous column on (No.100) presented the opinions of several agents in response to my views (in column Nos. 98 & 99) on the state of the active, selling agency system for life insurance and some of the factors in its decline.

This column presents (below) more commentary on the agency system, prompted by my columns, from writers I have identified because they wrote to me in their official capacity.


1. from Helena Smeenk Pritchard, BA, CLU, an experienced insurance industry salesperson and trainer whose business based in London, Ontario [] involves advanced training of life insurance sales people:

You're bang on again Al ! ...

I too have written about the challenges facing the dually licensed advisors -- especially those whose first love is investments. Asset sales and insurance sales are diametrically opposed -- one being right brain the other requiring left brain. ...

My challenge as you know is getting advisors to pay out of their own pockets for their training. The MGAs [managing general agents] tell me their margins are too skinny (yup, because they've used comp[ensation] to lure existing advisors from other MGAs).

Insurance companies tell me "the comp pie is finite -- and we're paying max comp to the MGAs/National Accounts". BUT there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel.

My results have captured the interest of a couple of carriers and as you know they have other (than comp) budgets to draw from for priority initiatives. However the insurance industry is still fighting ... an uphill battle because the [Mutual] Funds industry spoiled the advisors like crazy with FREE and splashy events like McKenzie University and the like.

But as I said -- we're getting there.

2. from William H. Rabel, Ph.D, FLMI., CLU, John & Mary Louise Loftis Bickley Endowed Teaching Chair in Insurance & Financial Services, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama:

Al, point well taken. The industry is committing suicide slowly. But help may be found in strange places ...

As you know we are developing a strong program in Insurance & Financial Services (IFS) at the University of Alabama. Students who have an interest (and they are many) are strongly encouraged to go into the sale of life insurance (or into P & L insurance agency/brokerage).

An important new development, just coming on stream, is a partnership between our insurance program and the sales program. That's right -- a sales program. You may be aware that many top universities offer marketing programs but they eschew ( a great word -- you can just spit it out) "sales". The philosophy underlying this position is the same one that has driven risk management and insurance education from many top schools -- supposedly it's trade school stuff, bereft of intellectual underpinnings.

Fortunately, despite being a perennial competitor for "top sixty" b-school honors ("top 35" among public schools), The University of Alabama has avoided the herd mentality of many in its peer group. The UA faculty feels that both "insurance" and "sales" are college-level subjects, the former worthy of being a specialization within Finance, the latter within Marketing.

I feel it is important for our insurance grads who want to go into sales to actually know how to sell something. Thus, I strongly encourage them to take as many sales courses as possible. By the same token I think it is helpful for people in sales to have a product. Therefore, if sales students are able to take three insurance courses in their curriculum I will give them an incentive to do so through a generous scholarship of up to $1000 per semester.

We have been pretty successful in placing our students with top [life insurance] companies. ...
Hopefully as we increase the numbers who have an education in both insurance and sales we will make our students even more sought after. In the meantime I receive a great deal of personal satisfaction in knowing that I am helping to place grads with good values into careers where they can have an important impact on the lives of many people.

At some point I hope you'll find a way to get your readers to check out the Canadian and U.S. schools that offer education in insurance and risk management. A list can be found at The university courses I am aware of are fully the equivalent (and often harder) than the justifiably respected professional courses such as FCII,CLU,FLMI,CPCU, etc. It stands to reason that a grad who has the equivalent of three professional courses would have a head start over and produce more than one who did not.

Ironically, insurance companies often offer generous encouragement to incent their employees to pass professional exams but may not even recruit insurance grads from a nearby school that offers a rich program -- much less give the new recruits the benefits they would have given employees.

This is irrational behavior!


Alastair Rickard