Monday, February 28, 2011

(No.139) Views, reviews & Don Cherry

Susan Ferley is the artistic director of The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. Clearly she has a real talent for finding plays based on 19th & 20th century English fiction to include in The Grand's seasonal program. Last year Pat and I attended The Grand Theatre's marvellous stage production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (see the review in column No.88 of April 12, 2010 on RickardsRead.com).

This season, in addition to a program of plays like Shirley Valentine, The Grand is presenting "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure" directed by Marcia Kash and adapted by playwright Stephen Dietz from a 1899 stage version by Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette combining "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "The Final Problem".

The staging and sets of The Grand's Sherlock Holmes production are very effective in making use of revolving sets designed by Shawn Kerwin who also did the sets for last year's Pride and Prejudice. Also, as with Pride and Prejudice last season, a complex and lengthy story is advanced and effectively explained by having a character -- Dr. Watson in this case -- step periodically to the front of the stage and, in spotlight, speak directly to the audience and move the plot forward.

The decision to present this work as a play much closer in tone and performance to a Victorian melodrama than to, say, one of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre productions was both fitting and wise. "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure" clips along at a great rate leaving little time for the audience to be distracted by plot points.

The performances by the large cast all manage to fit within the melodramatic approach to the play. The actor I would single out is Peter Krantz as the King of Bohemia; as with his performance in the role of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey at last year's Shaw Festival he was excellent in Holmes (see column No.88 on RickardsRead.com).

All in all we found The Grand Theatre's Sherlock Holmes to be a pleasant evening in the theatre.

"Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure" continues at The Grand Theatre through March 5, 2011. It will be followed at The Grand by "Shirley Valentine", the 1986 English play by Willy Russell, which runs from March 22 - April 9, 2011.
For information about these and other productions at The Grand, connect with www.grandtheatre.com; for tickets call 1-519-672-8800.

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I count myself among the many Canadians who enjoy listening to the politically incorrect and occasionally outrageous opinions of Don Cherry. They are offered principally on Hockey Night in Canada.

I have grown increasingly irritated by the fact that Canadian sports columnists almost to a man earn their journalistic and p.c. spurs (as supporters of all that is right about how hockey ought to be changed to a gentler game with no fighting) by filling their columns with rhetorical grenades thrown at Don Cherry. This produces for them the ancillary benefit of attracting readers.

These people seem both offended and frustrated by Cherry's disdain for them and his unflagging popularity with viewers. Indeed Hockey Night In Canada actually sees an incresase in the size of its audience during Cherry's Coach's Corner segments in the first intermission of each Saturday night broadcast when people like me, uninterested in watching another Leaf loss, still make a point of tuning in to catch Don's comments.

One of the (Toronto) Globe and Mail's columnists, Bruce Dowbiggin (who, in his CBC days, Cherry referred to as "sweater boy") once again helped fill his column on Feb 21 by taking shots at Cherry. I was prompted to send a brief letter to the editor of the Globe. No surprise to me that the Globe chose not to publish my shot at its columnists (Dowbiggin is only one of several writing for the Globe who often meet their column inches requirement with criticisms of Cherry).

My unpublished letter to the Globe and Mail appears below:

"The latest of Bruce Dowbiggin's frequent snotty references to "rockhead" Don Cherry [the Globe, Feb 21] reminds me of the extent to which Canadian sports columnists rely upon criticism of Cherry to fill countless column inches.

"Why? The possible reasons are numerous but at least one seems certain: Cherry's unconcealed contempt for columnists who are paid to watch NHL games, a realm in which very few (if any) have first hand experience."

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John Harvey is among the leaders of today's English writers of crime fiction -- also known as police procedurals. I have written in these columns about several of the novelists creating today's 'gritty' English crime fiction (see "Do rocking horses excrete? [more gritty British crime fiction]", column No. 130 of Jan.3, 2011 on RickardsRead.com).

Harvey has created two series of novels with memorable British police detectives: the larger one, eleven novels, featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick of Nottingham and another, a trilogy, with the sometime retired and reclusive D.I. Frank Elder.

In his recent novel Far Cry Harvey's focus is on D.I.Will Grayson of the Cambridgeshire police and his partner Detective Sergeant Helen Walker. The novel goes back and forth in a very well-plotted story from the mid-1990s to the present connecting cases involving the disappearance and abduction of several girls aged 10-12.

John Harvey continues in this novel to demonstrate his considerable talent for combining a great plot with fine writing.

John Harvey's Far Cry was first published in hard cover in 2009 and in soft cover by Arrow in 2010. For information about John Harvey and his books, see www.mellotone.co.uk

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

(No.138) Sun Life's Canadian jewel

On Feb.16, 2010 Sun Life Financial released its results for the 4th quarter of 2010 and the year 2010.

Perhaps only certain members of the investment community and the financial services paparazzi could fail to be impressed by the reality of Sun Life's results: 2010 net income of $1,583 million compared to $534 million in 2009; a return on equity of 9.9% in 2010 up from 2009's 3.4%; the fact that at year end 90+% of Sun's variable annuity and seg fund policies were included in its equity hedging program.

How was this reality reflected in Sun Life's share price? An immediate drop of a dollar or so a share, i.e., the usual level of market rationality.

I won't attempt to review here the quality of the 'analyses' of the Sun 2010 results. Still, a few points occur to me which readers are unlikely to have read elsewhere.

When I was an executive (minor) in the Sun Life international empire, my position having resulted from Sun's takeover of Clarica Life (i.e., the demutualized Mutual Life of Canada), I very soon tired of hearing variations of the official Sun Life sermon: Sun is a major international company; Canada is just a small population, comparatively minor market for Sun; the future is Asia (and to some extent the U.S.), etc, etc.

The logical leader of this message was and is Sun's CEO Donald Stewart, a man I respect for his integrity, personal demeanour and the way he treats people. I did not and do not dispute the significant potential of the Asian markets for Sun, especially in China and India. However market size and net income, like selling and writing profitable insurance business, or the professionalism and productivity of Sun's Canadian career agents compared with policy pedlars overseas flowing in and out of the system monthly by the thousands [sic], are not synonymous.

I did question Mr. Stewart in company forums about what I regarded as the need for Sun to 'invest' in the Canadian operation, in particular its career agency distribution system. Why? Because Sun's Canadian operation was and still is the source, disproportionately given the size of the various markets in which Sun has a presence, of more than half of Sun's total profits.

I recall, for example, asking Donald Stewart at one company meeting how long he thought it would be before Sun earned a 15% ROE on its operation in mainland China. It has had for much longer a retail operation in Hong Kong. Sun's interest in its 1999 joint venture in China, Sun Life Everbright, was "restructured" in 2010 and Sun's ownership interest reduced to 24.9%.

In my view there continues to be a tendency for the spoken and written rhetoric emanating from Sun's senior management to understate, even to largely ignore publicly the actual importance to the company of its Canadian operations because of its dedication to playing up in an overweening fashion what it wishes viewed as the wonderfulness of its Asian operations. In part I think this is because Manulife, long the company Sun has regarded as its archrival, has dined out on the image it has promoted of its own supposedly fabulous Asian operations.

Manulife has tended to get too easy a ride from analysts on (among other subjects) the problems its Asian operations have had over the years. For example, I recall one Manulife senior executive sharing with me fascinating tales of the shambles Manulife got into in its Japanese operation. Look in vain for realistic media reports about this. Also, in fairness to Sun it has long been more forthcoming than Manulife in providing realistic and useful numbers about where its profits and losses are actually coming from, operation by operation.

Back to Sun's results: my argument remains that Sun needs to divert a little of the 'investment' it pours annually into its still marginal sources of profit in Asia (2010 net income from its Asia division of $92 million or 1.5% of Sun's total), divert some into the Canadian operation (i.e., to the operation which in 2010 generated 52% of Sun's total net income) and especially into its Individual operation which in turn accounts for about half its Canadian net income total.

It would have served the cause of clarity and disclosure if, in its 23 page Feb. 16 news release about its 2010 results, Sun had diluted just a bit its enthusiastic rhetoric highlighting the performance of Birla Sun Life in India by telling readers that Sun has only a 26% interest in this 1999 joint venture with the Birla family, one of India's wealthiest [ditto Sun's 24.9% interest in Sun Life Everbright in China].

Even if Indian law were to be changed to permit a larger or even majority non-Indian ownership in such Indian companies, I very much doubt that Sun's interest would increase. Indeed a director of another of the Birla companies told me he thought the Birla family, while they would be happy to buy out Sun's interest in Birla Sun Life, would never sell a greater ownership interest to Sun. They have certainly benefitted from the money, expertise and experience Sun has put into the joint venture based on only one quarter ownership.

As for the Sun Life Financial Canadian operation's results for 2010, in mid-January I wrote that "I would not be surprised if [Canadian president] Kevin Dougherty leads the Canadian individual operation [to which he returned in Jan. 2010] to an impressive $200 million mark for new premium in a year -- and sooner rather than later -- provided he is not handicapped in doing so by Sun corporate." [see Column No.132 on RickardsRead.com]

In fact I think there were handicaps in 2010 but they were at least partially overcome. It seems that the individual premium sales made by Sun's career agency system (i.e., the system it bought when it took over Mutual/Clarica) accelerated in the 4th qtr of last year and their sales plus some by the brokerage arm did exceed $200 million in 2010. The primary credit of course belongs to the career agents who actively sold this core product but some credit also belongs to the leadership provided by Dougherty and his Individual operation team led by Kevin Strain and Vik Kazazian.

In 2009 I wrote a 5 part series of columns commenting critically on the problems and performance of Sun Life's operation, particularly in Canada (RickardsRead.com, see column Nos. 50,52,60,61 and 62). I ended the last column in the series, dated Nov.6, 2009, with the following:

"Sun still has in place in Canada the essential elements of a successful career agency distribution system. This is an asset which few companies could or would attempt to create these days for reasons of cost, degree of difficulty and executive incapacity in career agency management. It remains to be seen whether at the end of the day the potential of Sun Life's career system will be enhanced or dissipated."

In terms of the rebuilding of an appropriate focus, sales force morale and support of its Canadian career agency system to what it once was and could be again, 2010 was a promising start but only a start. Since Kevin Dougherty's return to head the Canadian operation on Jan. 1, 2010 the direction of the career agency system and a positive response by many of its members as the year went on is indeed evident in the 2010 sales results. It should be noted that there were some positive signs prior to 2010 including (finally) a bit of 'extra' operational budget money for the career system.

But one swallow does not a summer make. The effectiveness of a superior career agency distribution system is constructed over a long time but can be dissipated quickly as in fact was the case because of Sun actions following its takeover going on a decade ago and its subsequent direction of the Mutual/Clarica career system. The status quo ante will not be rebuilt in any lasting fashion in a year or two.

Imagine the potential for growth if Dougherty has available to him as an 'investment' by Sun Life corporate, as an extra non-operational budget allocation, anything like a real taste from the bucket containing the millions of dollars Sun pours annually into its Asian operations -- however small in comparison to what Sun's Asian operation absorbs every year. These dollars could be used to strengthen the quality of what Dougherty himself publicly recognized after he began his first stint (in 2004) as president of Sun's Canadian operation as not just the jewel in Sun's Canadian crown but a big part of the crown itself; he was referring to the Mutual/Clarica/Sun career agency distribution system.

In terms of that distribution system's relative importance to Sun in Canada, it was fundamentally important then and it still is. Properly led and supported it will produce reliable, predictable, growing and profitable business. Perhaps Dougherty will be allowed by those who know less about successfully selling life insurance in Canada than he does to get on with it based on sufficient resources -- even if they do have to be diverted from marginally profitable or unprofitable operations Sun Life has outside Canada.

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for detailed 2010 Sun Life results see:

www.sunlife.com

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

Thursday, February 17, 2011

(No.137) New Orleans revisited

The state of Louisiana has one of the most interesting political, cultural and social histories of any American state, by turns fascinating, rewarding, curious and dark. The depth of interest it generates extends far beyond the new slogan of the New Orleans Convention Bureau: "New Orleans. You're different here."

Pat and I have been visiting Louisiana off and on for more than 25 years and, latterly, outside New Orleans -- especially the capital of Baton Rouge and west to Lafayette and Cajun country where the Acadian exiles from Canada settled. Also a source of great pleasure have been our visits to most of the antebellum homes along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Southern Louisiana includes New Iberia and Bayou Teche, the setting for most of James Lee Burke's series of novels featuring detective Dave Robicheaux. The central character, a descendant of Acadians, is out of step with much of his environment but is a product of the American south. As Burke has Robicheaux observe in one of the novels:"No matter how educated a southerner is, or how liberal or intellectual he might consider himself to be, I don't believe you will meet many of my generation who do not still revere, although perhaps in a secret way, all the old southern myths that we've supposedly put aside as members of the New South." (A Stained White Radiance, 1992)

Baton Rouge has much to recommend it, not least the New York-style 34 story art deco skyscraper capital building the construction of which was organized in the depression of the 1930s in a (then) dirt poor state by its populist demagogue governor Huey Long. The building was completed in 1932 and on Sept 8, 1935 Long, by then a U.S. senator, was shot while near its elevators -- supposedly by a doctor but likely by his own bodyguards (who fired somewhere between 30 and 60 rounds). He died two days later. Today the building is an official U.S. historic landmark and visitors can still come to the spot in the capital where Long was shot and see the bullet holes.

Baton Rouge is also the home base of the disgraced televangelist I have long regarded as the best 'stump preacher' in that strange world: Jimmy Swaggart. Any visit to Baton Rouge should include attending a Sunday service at Jimmy's very large Family Worship Center; every service is a show, an experience not to be missed. [For an account of one of our visits see my column of Jan.4, 2009 "Falling from grace in Baton Rouge: being hugged by Jimmy Swaggart" on RickardsRead.com, (column No.3, posted Jan.4, 2009).

But what makes Louisiana a particularly fascinating place for me is its political and cultural history, one that includes a long story of racial divide and political corruption stretching through until today. It is one of America's poorest states (for example, it is the worst in terms of overall health outcomes in the US) as well as one of America's most unfortunate. Most recently the Katrina hurricane (2005) produced massive destruction in parts of New Orleans much of it remaining unrepaired today with only 2/3 of its pre-Katrina population; the BP oil spill in the neighbouring Gulf waters (2010) was a heavy blow to the local economy as was the post-2007 recession (2010 New Orleans real estate foreclosures were up 79% over 2008).

The political dynasty begun by "the Kingfish", Huey Long, in 1928 helped make political corruption inseparable from Louisiana politics over the decades. A recent example was provided by Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson whose $90,000 of bribe money was found by federal authorities secreted in his freezer.

While we were visiting New Orleans recently the city's daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, whose coverage of local politics and regional matters is excellent, reported that 83 year old former governor Edwin Edwards, now serving the final 6 months of his prison term in home detention at his daughter's house, is being inundated with calls of interest and well wishes.

New Orleans is regaining tourist traffic which declined sharply post-Katrina. The French Quarter, the tourist magnet of New Orleans, has much to offer to punters, offerings both good and bad. On the weekends, especially in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras (this year the big day is March 8), Bourbon Street in the French Quarter teems with the young, the curious as well as a significant representation of society's detritus.

We had not visited Bourbon Street in years. It is the street whose name has a cachet for young males which time has not dented, only enlarged. It has long been the home of the loud and the gross. By coincidence I had read an article recently in which a local musician and tour guide complained that New Orleans' rich musical history is being trashed, that Bourbon Street ( a supposed home of American jazz) "is becoming a pedestrian mall with beer go-cups. It is a sad state," she said, "when our iconic street has been reduced to loudly amplified versions of 'Cheeseburger in Paradise' ".

In the few places where jazz is still performed on Bourbon Street (where the beer and strip joints and rock music predominate) it is often drowned out by ear-piercing music from nearby bars. Today Bourbon Street is a Disneyland for the puking, drunken and mindless but it is, fortunately, unrepresentative of the rest of the French Quarter which still recalls a fascinating part of Louisiana history.

According to one New Orleans resident with whom we talked, the whole downtown area and not just the French Quarter is jammed at the peak of Mardi Gras with hundreds of thousands of partiers and becomes for a time very much like Bourbon Street. Indeed the scene is complete with old transit buses used by the police as mobile cages into which to throw and (when full) transport drunk and disorderly visitors. "Walk by one of these," he said, "and the smell of vomit and feces would knock you over." As he told us "the city does not want people to know that the absolute worst time to visit and appreciate the real New Orleans is Mardi Gras."

This unappealing picture of New Orleans during Mardi Gras is, in fact, more than offset by the reality of what this city and state offer year round to the visitor. For example: Louisiana is the setting and an inspiration for the novels of Louisiana native and resident James Wilcox (see my comments on Wilcox in "Does God look like Mayor Binwanger?", column No.128 of Dec.20, 2010 on RickardsRead.com). The city offers a wide variety of galleries and museums including three Pat and I enjoy particularly: the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Contemporary Art Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). All feature special exhibitions throughout the year.

The Ogden has in its permanent collection a couple of works that caught my attention. One by Clyde Broadway titled "Trinity - Elvis and Jesus and Robert E. Lee", a rather striking acrylic image presenting the three people named side by side bordered in fluffy pink. The other is a very large 1994 canvas "Young Life", a painting by Bo Bartlett showing a young father, rifle in hand, standing with his wife against the background of an older model pickup truck with a deer on top of the cab and a young boy standing off to the side; an absorbing and enigmatic image.

Our recent and first post-Katrina visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art renewed our pleasure from viewing the NOMA's idiosyncratic special holdings arising from the donation to NOMA of private collections: these range, for example, from an extensive collection of Faberge pieces, to a large collection of portrait miniatures, through two rooms of federal period furniture and objects to a collection of miniature Chinese snuff bottles.

The NOMA's permanent collection is by itself more than large and interesting enough to make a visit worthwhile. It includes galleries dedicated to Asian, Oceanic, African, Pre-Columbian and native American art. It also features interesting works of European art from the 15th through the 20th centuries.

There are some rewarding pieces by French artists such as Manet, Sisley, Renoir and Pissaro. There are also two oils by one of my favourite painters James Jacques Tissot (1836-1902), a French artist who I think did his best work while he was in England from 1871 to 1882. The two small Tissot paintings are "The terrace at Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich" done ca.1878 and "Going to business" (1879).

New Orleans offers a satisfying variety of rewarding experiences but our advice is to avoid Mardi Gras.

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New Orleans connections and sources:

1. The best and frankest guide for visitors is one of the "Unofficial Guide" series: The Unofficial Guide to New Orleans
2. New Orleans Museum of Art: www.noma.org
3. Ogden Museum of Southern Art: www.ogdenmuseum.org
4. Contemporary Art Centre: www.cacno.org
5. selected Louisiana & New Orleans official sites:
www. neworleanscvb.com
www.neworleansonline.com
www.louisianatravel.com

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

Sunday, February 13, 2011

(No.136) Executives with Wellington's horse syndrome

The life insurance industry's management of certain key activities during the past 30+ years reminds me of nothing quite so much as the aphorism about the Duke of Wellington's horse at the conclusion of the Napoleonic campaigns: it had been everywhere, seen everything and learned nothing.

Two areas of the industry's activity which have often been mismanaged by its executives are the distribution and the reinsurance of individual life insurance. Nor have I seen aspects of its commercial activity misused more frequently to falsely demonstrate supposed executive leadership, vision and a desire to 'think outside the box'. Indeed I have watched life insurance company prospects -- and in some cases viability -- victimized by this or that senior executive's personal program of career management and financial self-aggrandizement.

As the revelations of the financial services meltdown during 2007-9 have revealed it is not difficult to create, for a time, a patina of financial success for some dubious corporate activity or process, one that is publicly burnished by followers among the financial services paparazzi, groupies who were largely blind (at least publicly) to the greed and incompetence of the corporate managers responsible for the sheen.

In the life insurance business one need look no further for cogent examples than life insurance sales success in recent decades, success dependent in whole or in part (varying with the company) upon the sale of under-priced and over-compensated poicies. And what has been a key support of this Alice-In-Wonderland approach? The provision of great gobs of financial support under reinsurance treaties with large international reinsurance companies competing for market share. The incentive for senior management of life insurance companies to pursue 'financial reinsurance' arrangements for corporate rather than underwriting objectives is a story by itself.

I have worked with, known and known of many executives suffering from what I think of as Wellington's horse syndrome. But I have also had the good fortune to know and be associated with many first rate people in the life insurance business although I wish more of them had occupied CEO, COO and CFO roles in their companies.

An interesting illustration of the sort of outcomes that can be a byproduct of Wellington's horse syndrome in the life insurance business has recently been provided in an article by Ross Morton. A Canadian, Morton has one of the widest and deepest understandings of the realities of the life insurance business of anyone I know -- and not only of reinsurance, his particular area of expertise. Among other things he has run a reinsurance company in Canada (for Storebrand), been a senior executive for a major retail company (Manulife) and a globetrotting expert for an international reinsurer (RGA).

He has written and spoken extensively about the business over the years. His article was for the Jan 2011 issue of Reinsurance News, a publication of the (U.S.) Society of Actuaries' Reinsurance Section. The article is entitled " Jumbo Limits: Compensating For Terrible Administration".

The entire article is well worth reading but I want to share a few excerpts from it with the readers of RickardsRead.com. The italicized words within square brackets are mine.

" A long time ago," Morton wrote," reinsurance played a trivial role in the life insurance industry. In Canada 0.04% (rounded up, of course) of all life risk was reinsured in 1969. There was a slightly higher percentage in the United States .... reinsurance was a follower and minor player in the realm of life insurance risk taking. ... Content to beg or cajole a mere pittance of the premium pot the reinsurers fought each other for the privilege of table scraps.

"Administration of risk was lax and tardy but with most cedants [i.e., life companies reinsuring some of the insurance risk of the policies they sold and issued] keeping their full retention and reluctant to write policies larger than their retention [i.e., the maximum amount of life insurance risk in a policy the company would keep rather than reinsure], the penalty for such lackadaisical administration was trivial and easily manageable by both insurer and reinsurer. It helped that the largest of reinsurers routinely forgave blunders in insurance company administration ....

"As smaller insurers grew into large producers of risk through the advent of [life insurance] 'brokers", and as large [life insurance] companies became addicted to low reinsurance pricing, the amount of reinsurance ceded escalated by 2,000 fold in Canada and 1,450 fold in the United States by the end of the century. ...

"... the world of reinsurance administration deteriorated yearly from 1970 onwards and it took sheer catastrophe before a cacophony of voices raised up in horror at the absolutely poor risk management in both the cedant [i.e., the life insurance company passing on life insurance risk to the reinsurer] and the reinsurer. Everyone expected the proverbial shit to hit the fan, but everyone crossed their fingers and leaned on their optimism that carried over from their much praised pricing success. When the eventual eruption of issues came, there was more of the bad stuff below the surface that caused great embarrassment. ...

"Solutions were many and they ranged from better administration systems to real risk management practices. But one of the quickest solutions was to try to insulate oneself if you were a reinsurer from [the life insurance company] ... who was always tardy in appreciating the importance of reinsurance administration even when 75% of the risk [in a large life insurance policy] was passed off to one or more reinsurers! The hallowed jumbo limit was a quick and clean protective barrier to poor administration [in the life insurance companies writing the life insurance policies and then reinsuring them]. Our industry defines the jumbo limit as a limit placed on the amount of coverage that may be in force and applied for on an individual life for automatic reinsurance purposes. ...

"The reality is that in most cases the jumbo limit is there to compensate for poor administration and risk management [in retail life insurance companies that reinsure their policies]. ... Sloppy and much tolerated error-prone risk administration got our industry into this mess. ... Jumbo limits at the current levels are merely a Band-Aid on a gaping wound of a haemophiliac-like industry that lags in administrative excellence."

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Connections:

the article in Reinsurance News (Jan. 2011) by Ross Morton quoted in this column will appear on the website of the Society of Acturaries: www. soa.org

Ross Morton's website is: www.rossmorton.com

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca