Wednesday, May 30, 2012

(No.200) Media myths & RickardsRead,part 1: 200 columns & counting

"Media myths and RickardsRead, part 1: 

200 columns and counting"

by Alastair Rickard

This is the 200th column since I started nearly 3 1/2 years ago, an average of 1 to 2 columns a week. It seems the right time to mark the occasion with some comments about how it came about.

It began after I decided to take early retirement from Sun Life Financial which had taken over Clarica Life, the rather silly name invented by highly paid New York consultants and bestowed upon the demutualized Mutual Life Assurance Co. of Canada (founded 1870). Mutual Life had been my port of entry into the financial services business.

Writing columns for RickardsRead was not a leap for me since I had been writing for various publications, including my own, for many years. While I had been employed by Mutual Life I had established in 1978, much to the surprise and consternation of its senior management, the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance, aka CJLI.

The Journal was from its first issue a spare time project of mine and entirely separate from Mutual Life in every sense. However I came within a whisker of having my employment terminated because of it, a possibility I had taken into account.

I still cherish the letter I received after CJLI's startup from Mutual Life's then CEO John Panabaker in which, inter alia, he warned me that my job was hanging by a thread. It turned out to be a strong thread indeed. CJLI survived threats of legal action from some in the industry who disliked what I had to say. So did my job when, especially in those early days, there were regular post-issue publication calls of complaint to my employer from CEOs displeased by this or that editorial or article in CJLI.

It was a tribute to Panabaker that he resisted what must have been a strong impulse to rid himself of the source of this regular irritation. Several years later and quite by accident Panabaker and I, both descending to the conference floor in a Toronto hotel, shared an elevator. It stopped and another life insurance company CEO got on who proceeded to tell Panabaker that he thought CJLI published worthwhile material.

The Journal accepted no advertising and I published it as a spare time activity, one I often described as my contribution to the industry's mental health. The popular media's coverage of the life insurance business was then pathetically inadequate. The reality was that the industry's advertising dollars and various trade associations helped ensure that trade publications were editorially supine when it came to anything truly controversial. Things have improved somewhat since then -- but not enough.

Over the years the length of time between publication of CJLI's issues steadily lengthened as the demands on the spare time I needed to put out the Journal kept increasing. The point came when I put CJLI on the shelf.

I left Sun Life to whose senior management I had said -- at least twice -- everything I thought needed saying on issues about which I had experience and expertise. Afterwards I had neither the desire nor willingness to commit the time needed for restarting CJLI as a hard copy publication -- or even as a digital one.

I had continued over the years, after placing CJLI on the shelf, to address a variety of financial services and insurance issues in both published and unpublished forums as well as in speeches to North American audiences. Happily by the time I had emerged fully from the corporate tunnel the rise of new technology had provided a comparatively easy way for me to continue via the internet to express my opinions; hence the start of this blog --

In my next column I'll relate this journey to some of my experience with the media.




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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

(No.199) Shaw Festival: Rattigan, Coward & GBS

"The Shaw Festival: "Look ma, I'm not Terence Rattigan"

by Alastair Rickard

By the mid-1950s Terence Rattigan (born in 1911) had been England's most popular playwright for the best part of two decades. Less well known here and in the U.S., for North Americans his best known work was 1954's "Separate Tables", actually two one act plays, made into a movie in 1958 for which David Niven won the Best Actor Academy Award and Rattigan was nominated for his screenplay.

I can think of no more dramatic example of a popular modern playwright who went into steep decline -- and a mean-spirited one -- with critics, a group notoriously given to being trendy and often suspicious of success with a wide public audience,  than did Terence Rattigan. This descent from favour was precipitated by the arrival on the London stage in 1956 of John Osborne's play "Look back in Anger", the harbinger of the new English 'kitchen sink dramas' from the pens of Britain's new generation of  'angry young men'.

On several occasions Rattigan stoked the fires of his own decline with critics. When asked by a journalist what he thought of "Look Back In Anger", Rattigan replied in these words ( the actual wording depending on whether one trolls Google rather than the Rattigan biography by Geoffrey Wansell):  Osborne was saying "Look, ma, I'm not Terence Rattigan."

In his 1995 biography Wansell summed up Rattigan's sharp decline with critics and more gradually with producers and audiences: he "was suddenly cast aside by the British theatre with almost unimaginable brutality. First prized for his humanity and craftsmanship ... he was then abruptly and summarily dismissed as dated and irrelevant, period and precious, the creator of plays that only middle-aged maiden aunts could possibly like or admire. It was a monstrous judgment on his delicate, gentle talent, but the stigma lasted for thirty years."

Notwithstanding the sudden rise of the kitchen sink school of English drama Rattigan continued to write for the stage, screen and television. However he died in 1977 and did not live to see the very gradual revival of his reputation and of the performance of his work.

In 1995 my wife Pat and I were at one milepost along that long road when we attended at the Apollo Theatre in London's West End a new production of Rattigan's 1973 play "In Praise of Love" with Peter Bowles in the lead. The evening we were there the theatre was perhaps half full. Another example, quite recent, is the movie directed by Terence Davies and currently in release in Canada based on Rattigan's 1952 play "The Deep Blue Sea".

The Shaw Festival's 2012 season contributes to the Terence Rattigan revival. The Shaw program of  11 plays includes Rattigan's first real stage suceess: "French Without Tears", a very successful comedy that ran on the London stage for more than 1,000 performances beginning in 1936.

The play takes place in France in the household of a French tutor and his daughter whose business it is to help young Englishmen destined for careers in the Foreign Office or the military to learn French. The Shaw's production directed by Kate Lynch is performed by a very professional cast who give highly competent performances.

For me the most interesting part of the play, watching it today, is to think about those aspects of English society in the 1930s that helped make the play so successful for so long with audiences when in 2012 the humour seems minor. Perhaps one factor is that in 2012, nearly 80 years on, the titillations of the comedy's  plot are so much less effective as humour.

In recent years Jackie Maxwell, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, has consistently offered more plays which appeal to a range of tastes and interests more effectively than has the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. This year's program at the Shaw Festival is, in comparison with Stratford's, another illustration.

During our recent visit to the Shaw Festival we attended three plays all written within a 30 year period of the 20th century by two Englishmen and an Irishman: Rattigan's "French Without Tears", Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" and George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance".

All three are worth seeing, with several noteworthy performances including those of Steven Sutcliffe who seems to channel Noel Coward in the role of "Present Laughter's" Garry Essendine, a part originally played by Coward; also the marvellous Peter Krantz as Lord Summerhays in Shaw's "Misalliance".

For information about and tickets to The Shaw Festival plays, go to:




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Monday, May 14, 2012

(No.198) Banks & socially useless activity

"Banks and socially useless activity"


Alastair Rickard

I have argued repeatedly in these columns since the 2008 financial crisis that the public accolades claimed by and bestowed upon the big Canadian banks for their superior performance during the crisis in comparison with their U.S. counterparts really belonged more to tighter and tougher Canadian banking regulation and to the vigorous enforcement of same.

In my recent column, "Casino banking and the Wall Street shell game" (No.196, posted May 1, 2012) I referred to "the greed, incompetence and general thickheadedness of many of the senior executives in the financial services business", a view that was not universally well received by the readers of the column.

Since my column was posted there have been several interesting developments relevant to both the 2008 financial crisis and to the big Canadian banks.

I had observed in "Casino banking" that Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty knows that Canada's big banks "are not the paragons that the Wall Street disaster made them seem by comparison." In fact Flaherty, who imposed a shorter maximum residential mortgage payment period, says he has warned the Canadian bank CEOs that "you should be cautious about your lending practices, because this is the type of practice that led to a mortgage crisis in the U.S."

Some recent points to consider:

-- There have been changes by Ottawa to limit the activity and tighten the supervision of the federal government's mortgage insurance agency, the CMHC. which supports Canada's banks by insuring $600 billion (the new maximun for CMHC). Why the changes? CMHC, i.e., Canadian taxpayers, are now backstopping half of the $1.1 trillion of home mortgages. The time was past due for this agency to be treated and regulated as a major player in the Canadian financial system.

-- During the Wall Street crisis it now seems that the feds and the Bank of Canada infused financial support for Canada's big banks to the tune of $140+ billion. Not surprising under the circumstances you may say -- unless you had bought into all the hype about Canada's big banks being so wonderful and well managed that they had sailed through the financial crisis like lords of the manor unassisted and unsupported by their peasantry.

-- Malcolm Knight, the former second in command at the Bank of Canada, warned in a recent Washington speech that "owing to their massive size relative to the Canadian market, the largest Canadian banks create a major 'too-big-to-fail' risk." An interesting and informed opinion and one rather less comforting than the media applause of recent years for Canada's banks. Also relevant to the sort of increased concern that Mr. Flaherty is showing about the stability of Canada's financial system.

In my recent column on "casino banking" in the U.S. I also referred to the lack of understanding demonstrated by "senior financial executives of what they were doing and the financial devices they were using to make their multi-million dollar bonuses." And now, oh surprise of surprises, along comes with some news the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, one of the largest U.S. banks and one that was left more or less unsullied by the Wall Street financial crisis (at least in terms of requiring government bailout money). He revealed last week that JPM will lose $2 billion (likely to rise to $3 billion) because of trading "mistakes".

This is interesting indeed given the fact that JPM and its CEO Jamie Dimond were among the most active in Washington -- post -2008 financial mess -- lobbying against significantly tighter financial regulation and for special breaks in the post-2008 reforms to allow banks to continue to make 'big bets' in their portfolios. In company with other financial institutions JPM obtained a loophole in the reform that allowed "portfolio hedging". Dimond now admits that JPM's "synthetic credit portfolio" was an amalgam of derivatives and hedging bets that blew up.

The JPMorgan 'bad bet' provides yet another illustration -- although one is scarcely needed -- that Wall Street banking institutions and their CEOs don't seem to understand as much as they should about what their firms are doing, certainly not enough to manage multi-billion dollar 'bets'. This latest episode serves to reinforce the need for tighter financial regulation combined with closer and more vigorous supervision. It is self-evident that even the obvious lessons of the financial crisis were insufficiently understood by too many politicians and CEOs. The need for effective scrutiny and genuine transparency is ever more evident.

It is clear that Wall Street's brave new world with its false gods was insufficiently regulated pre-2008 and it looks as if it still is.  It is obvious that this sort of financial la la land can still attract lots of groupies, including from the North American financial media, who will clap like ideologically trained seals for financial services and transactions that are, in the words of the chairman of the U.K.'s Financial Services Authority, "socially useless". Of course the talking heads in places like Fox News will never agree that obscenely large bonuses paid to CEOs and their senior management teams should ever be thought of in such critical terms.

A mindset that considers 1% of the American population receiving a quarter of all personal income (up from 9% in 1979)  as appropriate might, like those at Fox News, consider Wall Street compensation excesses to actually be a key to American prosperity; or that it is only right that 1% of Americans receive more pre-tax income than the bottom 50% and have a higher net worth than the entire bottom 90%. It seems as plain as a pikestaff that such attitudes are a major part of the larger problem.

I conclude by quoting this brief comment I received in response to my "Casino banking" column. It came from the CEO of a Canadian financial organization who asked: "Do you have any solutions or is it just easier to be a couch quarterback?"

I replied as follows: " The purpose [of the "Casino banking" column] was to draw attention to a fine PBS Frontline program which during its four hours identified not only problems but also a variety of "solutions". During several decades as both a public commentator and an industry participant I frequently rose from my couch to identify a problem and offer a solution. I did so through speeches, articles as well as corporate memoranda. Occasionally the reaction I received was like yours. I always found this encouraging."




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Monday, May 7, 2012

(No.197) Picasso & Dora Maar come to Toronto

"Picasso and Dora Maar Come To Toronto"

by Alastair Rickard

There was a coincidence of timing at the beginning of May: the sale to an anonymous buyer for $120 million of one of the four paintings of "The Scream" done by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch and the opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario (the AGO) in Toronto of a major Pablo Picasso exhibition: "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris". The sale at auction in New York (Sotheby's) of the only one of the four paintings still in private hands eclipsed the previous record for an artwork -- a record $106.5 million (U.S.) held by Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust" sold by auction by Christie's in 2010.

The public is encouraged to believe by some art critics and opinion shapers that the works of 'contempoary' or 'modern' artists of one sort or another (like Picasso who died in 1973 or Andy Warhol in 1987) attract ridiculously high prices because they are momentous art. If Warhol's tinted photographs are great art, so are NHL hockey sweaters. Picasso deserves to be thought of in a different artistic category -- and is.

In fact the dollar value of so-called contemporary art, especially the stuff being churned out these days, often reflects neither merit nor any real artistic talent.

Contemporary art works, promoted by financially self-interested private galleries, art brokers and various media toads in art's gardens, have become preferred assets as well as trophy purchases of the very rich (leading examples these days are Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks). They are also investment buys of the merely wealthy.

The reality is that in today's marketplace only one art museum in the world has, even in theory, the money to have competed at auction to acquire Munch's painting for the price paid: the Getty Museum in California, created in the 1970s by the American oil man J. Paul Getty and endowed in 1982 with $1.2 billion. It would likely have taken three years of the Getty's entire annual acquisition budget to get into the bidding for the Munch painting in a serious way.

I don't remember how many Picasso exhibitions (large and small) Pat and I have attended since the early 1980s; I recall particularly one that stopped in the summer of 1985 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that was very well received. The AGO actually hosted one of the early 'blockbuster' Picasso exhibitions in 1964.

The English minimalist Damien Hirst is today's leading example of celebrity-based, trendy, commercially attractive art, an artist supported by the investment and fashion-driven contemporary art market rather than by artistic talent. However the public would never have expected from Picasso -- no matter how fashionable the collection of his work became -- anything like Hirst's  skinning of a sheep's head and presenting it as a work of art ("A Thousand Years", 1990) or constructing a large disk made of thousands of flies preserved in resin ("Black Sun", 2004).

The difference between Picasso and so many of today's commercially successful contemporary 'artists' was that he actually had artistic talent which he displayed in his art. What he later became was a mass producer of works that appealed to (among others) those seeking to show themselves resolutely in opposition to 'traditional' painting.

Not for Picasso the inexplicable commercial price inflation related to, say, silk screen tinted photos churned out by Andy Warhol's assistants under his name and certainly not the numerous bizarre creations already around as well as those yet to come from Damien Hirst 'wannabes'. But why not? Are they not applauded by the pretentious denizens of the Tate Modern in London and purchased by  wealthy investors/collectors whose core question tends to be: 'what's a good art investment these days?'.

The Picasso Museum in Paris, which Pat and I have visited, has been closed for renovations (which it needed and, for me, a setting more interesting than the art it housed). Its director Anne Baldassari cleverly decided to use this time to raise some cash by touring some of its artistic holdings. Hence the special exhibiton at the AGO in Toronto which runs through August 26. It is the only Canadian stop for the exhibition.

In the interests of clarity and of fairness to my spouse: as with most art she both appreciates and enjoys a wider range of art than I do -- and that includes Picasso. Having said that I hasten to add that this Picasso exhibition is the most interesting I have attended anywhere because it covers the arc of his entire artistic life from his youth in Spain through his death in France.

Picasso was born in Malaga in 1881  and moved with his family in 1895 to Barcelona. He is often thought of as French since it was that country to which he moved, settling in Paris in 1904. For me the most interesting parts of his artistic career are when his talent as an artist was displayed in neither cubist nor surreal styles.

In the AGO's Picasso exhibition you can follow not only the changes in his style but also see evolve a style that enabled an accelerated production of an estimated 50,000 art works during his lifetime. Averaged over his adult years that amounts to almost two per day every day seven days a week. At that rate he was turning out (mostly) paintings like summer sausage in Ontario Mennonite country.

If the attendee at the AGO exhibition is anticipating a display featuring Picasso's most famous works, forget it. The AGO advertising of the exhibition says that it features art the Picasso kept for himself. Well, yes and no. The Musee National Picasso also holds works donated to it since Picasso's death including donations in lieu of taxes. But the art currently on display at the AGO is significant and representative.

One of the 'portraits' in the exhibition is of Dora Maar, the fourth of Picasso's six principal female companions during the 1904-1973 years, two of whom he married. Dora Maar, a photographer and political activist whose real name was Henriette Markovitc, was with Picasso from 1935 to 1944 and was the subject of a number of his paintings. Born in 1907 she outlived him by almost a quarter century, dying in 1997.

The exhibition portrait featured in the advertising for the exhibition and on the cover of the exhibition guide is "Dora Maar seated"(1937). It is interesting that in 2005 an anonymous Russian paid $95.6 million (U.S.) for another Picasso painting of this mistress: "Dora Maar with cat"(1941).

In terms of Picasso's style in "Dora Maar seated" the figure depicted can be recognized as a female. This is -- for me at least -- in happy contrast with, for example, a painting also in the exhibition: "Reclining nude and man playing guitar"(1970). It might more accurately have been titled 'yellow blobs above orange blobs'.  But to appreciate the real depth of Picasso's talent, especially evident in his earlier work, the exhibition attendee can also view paintings like "Portrait of Olga in an armchair" (1918) and "Seated woman" (1920).

Both Pat and I found the AGO's Picasso exhibition worth attending. Pat found more in it to enjoy that I did. An audio guide provides some information about selected works and attempts to provide insight into Picasso's changing styles.

The Picasso exhibition runs through August 26 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. For details go to




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