Wednesday, December 18, 2013

(No.253) the Economical Insurance Co. & demutualization: what might we watch for?


"The Economical Insurance Compamy and its proposed 
demutualization: what might we watch for? 
Plus some other views including the previous demutualization of
The Mutual Life Assurance Co. of Canada "

by Alastair Rickard

Each of my three most recent RickardsRead.com columns (Nos. 241, 245 & 251)) concerning the property and casualty insurance (P & C) company Economical Mutual and its proposed demutualization prompted a number of emails from readers.

As advanced by the company's board and supported by its fewer than 1,000 "voting shareholders" what is being sought is to divide among themselves the company's equity ( which could be equal to $1 million plus per voting policyholder).

Having previously presented comments critical of my negative views on the subject, this column will present some other views. Consistent with my usual practice I have withheld the names of the correspondents but have identified them generally in terms of their connection to or basis of interest in the subject.

An insurance expert on demutualization emailed to say that "I always read you with great interest, even when you push your natural kindness to take the time to answer stupid letters!

"I read recently in FlashFinance.ca that Economical is in its 4th wave of closing offices and reducing expenses. This may be in connection with the larger than expected amount of claims but there could be another explanation, suspicious me would suspect: not only the reduction of expenses for a better [share] price but also the smoothing out of the approval process on a transfer of a block of business. The note said that this trend started soon after they announced their intention to demutualize.

"Establishing a demutualization regime [by the federal government] for P & Cs is a complex job (many companies and politicians have been educated with the life [insurance mutual company demutualization] regime), one with great visibility -- and compliance is tedious.

"Selling all the non-voting policies [of Economical Insurance] to, say, Intact Insurance, and distributing the proceeds to the voting policyholders [of Economical] who would have remained in the skeletal Economical is a single deed, a simple transaction and a less visible one. But it still needs the approval of the minister ... and of the Competition Bureau. However it's nothing like the long process of demutualization.

"The [regional Economical] offices being closed now are in Moncton and Hamilton. Should we know the intended purchaser it would be interesting to see if it has offices in these relatively small cities, especially Moncton. Well all this is worth watching for now."

A former manager with the Mutual Life of Canada, now an insurance industry consultant, responded to my views with "Amen Al, Amen. Thanks for the great read on Economical's demutualization attempt. I appreciate it as a longtime non-voting policyholder and interested insurance industry observer.

" And I daresay this piece included something I have thought for a long time but don't recall seeing -- that the demutualization of MLC [Mutual Life of Canada] was unnecessary. It was a shame.

"To me it was worse than unnecessary. It changed the nature of the industry and not for the better. That same greed at work at Economical is the code of the day in all life [insurance] companies today. It hasn't helped."

A longtime consulting actuary involved in the Canadian life insurance business wrote to declare that "I can proudly say I had absolutely no role in any [Canadian life insurance company] demutualization,

"There was no big money in demutualization for actuaries or anybody else for that matter, as we saw it, until the big brain actuaries made it so.

"As it was a windfall for [participating] policyholders, 1 vote = 1 share was the logical way to go. The market will value the shares. Have a nice day.

"Anything else was entirely arbitrary. It wasn't their money. Policy size and location did not and should not matter until the actuaries made it so, and crunched local and foreign asset shares going back 100 years and blasted out embedded values going forward another 100 years, and made out like bandits. ....

"In my view demutualization was an actuarial scam up there with the good old days of hawking defined benefit pension plans by overvaluing the assets, as only they can. Nobody else has that insidious power but pretty much everybody else has to pay for it, including transforming the nature of the entity ....

"But with Economical as you describe, there's years of scheming and manoeuvring setting it up with few votes for lucky insiders .... "

A very successful agent of many years experience with the Mutual Life of Canada wrote to agree with my unfavourable view of the demutualization of the Mutual Life of Canada more than a decade ago.

"The only point I would make [ref. RickardsRead column No. 245] is that you have been through a demutualization. You understand the process and repercussions.

"In the life insurance industry we lost one of the best run, productive and philosophically innovative insurance companies in Canada and North America. In retrospect I feel the process was motivated by greed. The policyholders were essentially forgotten. In the long run the industry and policyholders were the losers."

An American insurance educator wrote to thank me for "a nice Thanksgiving present. Nothing like a series of good belly laughs. And it is possible to laugh even at situations as absurd and deplorable as this one [i.e., the Economical Insurance Company demutualization]. I only hope the federal regulators do the right thing -- when they get around to it."

From a fomer life insurance company executive who lives in the Waterloo region in which Economical has its head office came this: "I guess if I were anticipating a payout of approximately 1 million dollars for simply owning an insurance policy I would have some strong concerns about someone with a national audience who is effectively pointing out the inequity of such a payout, particularly if I thought the Minister of Finance might be inclined to both read and agree with the [criticism about the] inequity."

While from one side of the 'discussion' I published the view of an Economical voting policyholder who thought I was a blatant liar and crackpot who crawled out from under a rock,  another correpondent from the life insurance side of the business viewed my status as being somewhat above that: "You have a unique ability to go to the heart of the matter. Apparently this has an effect of pissing some people off. My sense is that you don't give a fig about that. You are a modern day Diogenes."

Another resident of the Waterloo Ontario area, but one who is not involved with the insurance business, thought the most recent column on Economical was an "excellent, balanced article; the profits of the company should benefit all the shareholders, not just a select few. You can only hope that what you've written here reaches the right people in Ottawa ...."

Finally my friend Joe Belth, editor and publisher for 40 years of the Insurance Forum based in Indiana, wrote (to comfort me?):

"Dear Blatant Liar and Crackpot -- I cannot tell you how big a charge I got out of the comment you received after your latest blog about Economical Insurance. I am jealous, because I have not received anything like that in at least 20 years from any of my 40 or so subscribers. My subscribers are much better behaved and much smarter, because they know from past experience that I publish such comments complete with the name of the writer.

"All the best to you,

"Your Ellettsville Stringer."

***********************************

About this column:

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

to set a 'Google alert' in  order to receive automatic notice of new
columns as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.google.com/alert

previous columns/blog archive: to access columns go the blog archive
the links to which are listed chronologically in the margin beside each
column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website -- and use the
links.

***************************************



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

(No.252) Recently published novels: some good reading, some great


"Recently published novels: some good reading, some great"

by Alastair Rickard

The English critic Cyril Connolly once observed that literary critics had the thankless task of drowning other people's kittens. For this self-imposed critical role writers of fiction are mostly and understandably unsympathetic. As the screenwriter Chrisopher Hampton declared: "asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs."

In my RickardsRead columns on novels I escape the frequent  role of the critic to which Connolly and Hampton refer by reviewing books I have enjoyed at least to some degree.

Some book reviewers feel the urge to draw blood in order to show off their sharp edge. Others revel in taking the role of the termagant when writing abut novels. While I can and do indulge in what some regard as shrewish comment, when it comes to fiction I usually don't.

I do refrain from issuing praise comprehensively, like rain falling on the just and the unjust. I see no point in wasting the time of the readers of RickardsRead.com (or mine, for that matter) recommending  books that make for inferior reading even when they are superior examples of how not to write.

In the column that follows I present my views of six recently published novels, three by British novelists and three by Americans. All of these new works by long-established novelists provide enjoyable reading although not of equal accomplishment.

Michael Connelly is a former California reporter who wrote a series of very good 'police procedural' novels featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch. The author is now well along with another series in which the central character is Bosch's half-brother, an LA criminal defence lawyer named Mickey Haller who operates out of his limousine, hence the title of the first book in the series "The Lincoln Lawyer".

The latest book in this series is "The Gods of Guilt", a story that is absorbing and set principally in and around an LA courtroom as Haller and his small team defend a client who, unusually for them, is actually innocent in this case of the murder of a prostitute with which Haller's pimp/client has been charged. Neither the police in LA nor the California judicial system come off looking well. It is a great story well written by a novelist who knows his way around the courts, the police and the bestseller list.

John Lawton is an accomplished English novelist who has, among other books, written seven novels featuring a Scotland Yard detective Inspector Troy, from a wealthy upper class family but very far from being a Lord Peter Wimsey-style twit. The series follows him from being a beat constable in the 1930s through post-war England.

Lawton's latest novel, "Then We Take Berlin" is not one of the Troy series. It follows the central character, Joe Holderness, from his lower class London adolescence during the years of W.W.II as an apprentice burglar through being drafted just after the war into the Royal Air Force and then, because of a superior IQ test, taken into British intelligence and sent to post-war Berlin, ending up by the 1960s as an undistinguished London private detective. From that role he is drawn back into a Berlin scheme by a former associate.

The plot is absorbing and the writing is up to Lawton's usual high standard. It is the sort of novel that, once begun, one hates to put down.

Robert Harris is an English novelist and former journalist whose books have covered an impressively wide range of subjects and periods, from ancient Rome to a Germany in the 1950s that had not lost the war. In fact this latter novel, "Fatherland", is one of my favourites.

Harris' novels are impressively researched and then presented as highly credible and informative historical fiction. With his latest novel, "An Officer And A Spy", he takes the famous 19th century French political scandal known ever after as the Dreyfus Affair and makes of it a truly riveting story.

Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army and a Jew from a wealthy family at a time of blatant anti-Semitism in French society. He was falsely convicted by the military of spying for France's arch enemy Germany and transported to complete isolation on Devil's Island. His story and its outcome is told through the eyes and words of a French intelligence officer who, becoming convinced that Dreyfus had been railroaded, is instrumental in his eventual release.

This novel, based on an historical case for which much documentation is available, has been turned by Harris into a fascinating novel. It is also further evidence of Harris' superior skills as a novelist.

For me among many other readers the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin is one of the very best crime genre novelists writing in the English language. He is a real favourite of mine as is the character he created and followed in a long standing series of novels -- Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus. He is a joy to read about (although not to know).

A few years ago Rankin retired Rebus from the force and created a new continuing character in the police, Malcolm Fox, an investigator in the Edinburgh police unit called "The Complaints", the title of the first Fox novel, the sort of police unit which in the U.S. is customarily called 'Internal Affairs'. In terms of the rules, their styles and their respective approach to their work Rebus and Fox are opposites.

In his latest novel "Saints Of The Shadow Bible" Rebus is back in the force although on a short term basis, now in reduced rank as a sergeant, and working on an old case which involves a former group of detectives with whom he was a colleague. Also involved with the case from a different direction is Malcolm Fox.

This novel is everything one expects from Ian Rankin: superior writing and a finely  plotted story.

Archer Mayor is a Vermont novelist who, many novels ago, began the story of a Vermont policeman and Vietnam veteran named Joe Gunther. Joe's cases have been varied as have the cases with which he and his small band of detectives have become involved.

The latest in the Gunther series, "Three Can Keep A Secret", has Joe and his bunch involved in a series of cases arising because or in the wake of Hurricane Irene hitting the state hard. The novel is the sort of enjoyable reading one has come to expect from Mayor but it is not a book that offers either writing or plot on a par with the foregoing novels.

Nor does the latest novel (the 7th) by the bestselling American novelist John Sandford featuring the Minnesota state police detective Virgil Flowers who works rural and small town parts of the state. "Storm Front" is an interesting enough tale in which the pursuit of a holy relic to Minnesota by an assortment of middle eastern characters provides levers for Flowers to pull when not polishing his bass boat.

Sandford knows how to keep an interesting story moving along briskly as he has done in his other multi-volume series also set in Minnesota featuring a tough urban cop named Lucas Davenport. Flowers reports to Davenport but doesn't replicate his traits.

                                                             ***************

When next I devote a column on RickardsRead to books I may focus on several worthwhile
non-bestsellers, unusual in authors and subjects, out of the mainstream but still in print.

**********************************

About this column:

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

to set a 'Google alert' in order to receive automatic notice of new
columns as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.google.com/alert

previous columns/blog archive: to access columns go to the blog archive
the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside each
column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website  -- and use the links.

************************************



        

Saturday, November 23, 2013

(No.251) demutualization of the Economical Insurance Co. -- for the few by the few.


"Still more about the proposed demutualization of the 
   Economical Mutual Insurance Company: 
   benefits for the few arranged by the few"

by Alastair Rickard

The demutualization of the Economical Mutual Insurance Co. of Waterloo, Ontario was announced in Dec. of 2010. It was proposed by the company's board and senior management on behalf of the 943 "voting policyholders" of the company (out of the many thousands) who seek to receive the 'equity' on a demutualization. It still awaits federal approval.

As a federally regulated property and casualty insurance company Economical's proposal must await the development and implementation of a regime governing P & C company demutualizations. The wait continues as the federal government decides how to resolve fundamentally important issues in order to produce a regime that will govern such actions in future.

In the national media most of Canada's financial services paparazzi have been too busy carrying water for the Bay and Wall Streets crowd post-2008 to comment on or even take much note of the issues raised and the regime necessitated by the proposed demutualization of Economical. What is involved, if Ottawa were to permit the sort of demutualization of Economical desired by the company, would amount to the exclusion from sharing in the company's equity of most of Economical's policyholders in favour of a relatively tiny group of "voting policyholders".

This group's members seek to divide among themselves and benefit richly from not only  policyholder equity accumulated since 1871 but also from the fact that policies carrying 'company ownership' status (1.1+ million Economical Insurance policies do not) have long been restricted de facto to very limited numbers. Such special 'ownership' status carried by this class of policy was largely unknown to customers  (and even to some of the company's own brokers -- as I have been told).

Because of the paucity of attention to this matter in the financial media, including the role that must be played by the federal Dept. of Finance and its minister in developing a regime to govern P & C demutualization, I have devoted a number of columns to the subject [see, via the links beside all RickardsRead columns, column nos. 159, 166, 179, 206, 208, 209, 213, 241 & 245].

I have also given space to other views including uncensored expressions of dislike of the attention I have paid to the proposed treatment of Economical policyholders sought by the 943 "voting policyholders" of the company as they seek to distribute -- among themselves only -- the equity of the company ($1.5 billion at the end of 2012).

I was not surprised that a member of the '943 group' -- a retired company executive and voting policyholder -- growing increasingly impatient with the delay and uncertainty involved with the arrival of his million dollars -- characterized me as a "crackpot" and "blatant liar" "who has crawled out from under your rock" (his email is reprinted in its entirety in column No. 245).

More recently I received an email from yet another Economical Insurance "voting policyholder" who, while rather more polite in her email, also offered comments which I reproduce in their entirety:

" Just wondering what your take was when the life insurance companies demutualized. Knowing some of the policyholders they received about $1,000,000. You were part of these companies from what I gather from your bio.

"I am not an insurance broker nor an executive with Economical Mutual. I have been a mutual policyholder with them since 1962 with my home and auto and later my cottage and boat. My property policy renewed every THREE years. The premium was locked in each three year period. My premium amount was more than the other insureds who jumped from company to company. Substantially more at times. I have also been claims free during that time.

"You seem to be attacking the executive of Economical Mutual with a vengeance and I am wondering why. I can understand your questioning but your attitude is spiteful."

While I do not intend to rehearse all the points made in previous RickardsRead columns on the proposed demutualization of the company, there are a couple of things to be said prompted by this correspondent's comments.

(1) I was indeed an officer and a par policyholder of the Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada (also of Waterloo, Ontario) when its board and top management planned and initiated its demutualization. I thought then, as I still do, that this was an ill-advised and unnecessary action for a superior company founded as a mutual in 1870. I refused to speak in support of demutualization  in or out of the company. However, to imply that Mutual Life's demutualization produced million dollar payments to numerous of its participating policyholder owners (i.e., what all Economical's "voting policyholders" seek for themselves only) is not merely an apples and oranges comparison, it is apples and stove bolts.

   I would have few complaints about the treatment of policyholders if the yet to be announced regime for P & C insurance company demutualization requires the sort of equitable treatment formula received by Mutual Life's par policyholders.

Of course the reality was that one could not fill a suburban closet with Mutual Life par policyholders who received a million dollars on demutualization. In fact the company's equity on demutualization was divided not among a tiny fraction of its policyholders but among its hundreds of thousands of life insurance policyholders because virtually all of the company's policies were designated as participating, even universal life policies. Hence when demutualization did occur they were eligible to share in the distribution of equity to par policyholder owners.

(2) I am not now and have never been a policyholder of Economical Mutual Insurance. I have no interest in "attacking the executive of Economical Mutual". I care not one jot or tittle about them except to the extent that they are involved with proposed treatment that is unfair to all the policyholders of Economical while grossly favouring the corporal's guard of "voting policyholders" who happen, only because of an historical curiosity and a fairly well kept secret in the modern era, to be lining up for a big payday.

I have opposed and continue to criticise what amounts to fundamental inequity and unfairness, an unjustified enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, a proposed process of financial aggrandizement engineered by the few for the benefit of the few.

(3) Followers of RickardsRead -- as indeed those who subscribed in years past to my Canadian Journal of Life Insurance -- are of course free to characterize my "attitude", one which this correspondent thinks is "very spiteful". I note however that criticism and the pointing out of pertinent facts does not constitute a definition of "spite", even if it appears to involve a dialogue with the deaf.

To do so does not demonstrate malice toward the 943 insiders who seek million dollar payments from Economical's demutualization based on a proposal to Ottawa that obviously represents a consensus of Economical's board and senior management seemingly reached on the basis of discussion in an echo chamber.

Being on a corporate board of directors is no prophylactic against the allure of a bad idea. As the 2008 Wall Street-induced financial crisis demonstrated yet again (as if another illustration was needed) there is an almost limitless capacity to be found among many leaders in the financial services business to believe (or at least to profess belief) in the most risible nonsense -- if it suits them.

(4) I am indeed negative about the Economical Insurance proposal for demutualization. I am negative in defence of a particular set of values in contrast with the diorama of self-serving platitudes which appeared on the pages of of Economical's 2012 annual report. It is plain as a pikestaff that the demutualization proposal from the company, in terms of its logic, coherence and fairness, is as insubstantial as the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.

                                                                 ****

There are things about Economical Mutual's 140 years in the Canadian P & C insurance business to admire. The demutualization proposal is not among them.

It is now almost three years since the announcement of the proposed demutualization was made. Economical's "voting policyholders" are still waiting, apparently with increasing impatience and worry, for Ottawa to bring forth a regime to be followed by any eligible P & C company wishing to demutualize.

Were I among this group I would not be optimistic that federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty would allow me and the others in this tiny financial fraternity to walk away from a demutualization of Economical with all the financial candy in the basket. Nor is there any political reason or practical incentive for the Minister to hasten action even these several years on. The only people who seem anxious for federal action are to be found in the '943 group'.

I predict that the board of directors and top management of Economical will discover, when the federal government eventually responds to the issues Economical put in play in Dec. 2010, that there is a limit to how high one can climb when tied to a bad idea.

If they think they will actually get from the federal authorities provision for the sort of financial preference Economical has requested for them then they belong alongside the Cheshire Cat in Alice's Wonderland.

****************************

About this column:

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

to set a "Google Alert" in order to receive automatic notice of new
columns as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.google.com/alert

previous columns/blog archive: to access columns go to the blog archive
the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside each
column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website -- and use the links.

********************************  

       

Thursday, November 7, 2013

(No.250) The magnificent Joseph Belth



"The magnificent Joseph Belth: 
a model for insurance critics"

by Alastair Rickard

I had given some thought to the subject I might choose for this the 250th column I have posted to RickardsRead.com. A decision made by a friend, American writer and critic Joseph Belth, provided me with my topic.

In the Nov. 2013 issue of his monthly newsletter the INSURANCE FORUM (Vol.40, No.11) Joe announced that next month's December issue would be the last after 40 years.

He will continue sharing his insights and comments on his new blog: www.josephmbelth.com and, as I write this, has already posted a number of items.

While putting out the FORUM Joe also had a distinguished teaching career and is professor of insurance (emer.) in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. In the penultimate issue of his INSURANCE FORUM he wrote abut the reasons he started his monthly newsletter "for the unfettered exchange of ideas about insurance", what he tried to accomplish and why he is ending its publication.

Followers of RickardsRead.com will be aware of the high regard I have long had for Joe Belth as a man of principle, a writer of talent and the person I have long regarded as the best and most knowledgeable critic of the modern American life insurance business.

I began following Joe's views in the INSURANCE FORUM years ago and he became a model for me of informed and thoughtful commentary on the life insurance business and a major influence on my thinking in starting the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance. It was for me a spare time activity from my job as an insurance company junior executive and my attempt to contribute to the Canadian life insurance industry's mental health.

I first met Joe when I introduced myself ca 1981 when he came to Toronto as an invited witness before the Ontario Legislature's Select Committee on Company Law which was looking into the life insurance business. We have stayed in touch ever since.

I have been pleased to receive invitations to write something for the INSURANCE FORUM and I was honoured to have my name included by Joe on the list of "significant contributors" in his November 2013 issue.

When I learned of the coming end of the INSURANCE FORUM I sent Joe the following email:

"I just received your latest issue and read -- with mixed feelings -- of your intention to wind up the INSURANCE FORUM.

"I say mixed feelings because, as one who tried his hand for some years putting out as a spare time avocation a 'special interest' periodical -- especially one, like the FORUM, accepting no advertising -- I have some notion of the time and effort you have put into the INSURANCE FORUM for the past 40 years.

"For those decades you have produced a truly impressive editorial product, one providing important context for those interested in critical thought and genuine substance. As I have said to you previously, you have been an inspiration and a model for me through the years and for many others with a thoughtful interest in the life insurance business.

"I cannot find the words to express adequately how magnificent your achievement and contributions have been during the past four decades. You have every reason to be proud of your record.

"I think you will discover, as I have during the past few years, that a blog is a good way to go these days. Congratulations and best regards."

In writing and publishing the INSURANCE FORUM Joe Belth set a high bar for knowledge and thoughtfulness in offering comments and criticisms of the life insurance business in its various aspects, a standard too rarely approached over the years in Canada as well as the U.S. by various self-styled consumer critics of and 'experts' on the life insurance business in and out of the financial media.

Joe gave speeches and wrote widely apart from the INSURANCE FORUM. With his book "Life Insurance: a consumer's handbook" (1985 -- and still available via Amazon) he established the gold standard for accuracy and usefulness in consumer guides to life insurance. It remains so today in my opinion. Beside it many of the so-called consumer guides to life insurance are shallow, unrealistic, frequently inaccurate, of limited practical value to the consumer and too often dangerously misleading.

I will close with just a few excerpts from Joe Belth's Nov. 2013 piece on "why I started the Inurance Forum and why I am ending it":

" My sole objective [in founding the Forum] was to create a vehicle allowing me to communicate with individuals and organizations in the insurance business without censorship."

"Although I never built a large circulation, there is no doubt that many readers were important decision makers ...."

"I am 84 years old. Aside from some minor medical problems, I am fortunate to have been blessed with good health. Yet in recent years I have noticed some loss of the stamina needed to keep up with the demanding requirements of a monthly newsletter."

"A major factor in my decision to end publication is my desire to write a memoir about The Insurance Forum. ... By ending the newsletter I hope to complete the book soon."

"Another major factor in my decision is my strong reluctance to turn the newsletter over to someone else. I have seen periodicals become unrecognizable after they are taken over by new management. I want The Insurance Forum to be remembered in its original form as my personal 40-year project."

It will be. Well done Joe.

******************************

About this column:

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access columns go the blog archive the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website --
and use the links

to set a Google Alert in order to receive automatic notice of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com go to
www.google.com/alert

  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

(No.249) "The marvellous Mary Pratt"


"The marvellous Mary Pratt:
a touring national exhibition"

by Alastair Rickard

Canadian painter Mary Pratt has not had as high a public profile as her former husband Christopher. Both are well-established painters of the so-called realist school, Christopher Pratt with his paintings of boats and buildings, Mary with her 'domestic' subjects (as media shorthand would have it).

Mary Pratt's paintings, while collected by many, have not fully engaged the trendy attention or overcome a fashionable snobbery to be found in good measure among the staff of some major public galleries like the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

In such places curators consider themselves too sophisticated to be interested in hosting one of the stops in a national tour of a 50 year retrospective of the work of the 78 year old Mary Pratt. Such curatorial staff have been known to sniff at art that is too 'realistic', i.e., too accessible to the wider public. Much better in such august but taxpayer-supported institutions to devote as much wall space as you can get away with to the creative output of the talentless, to larger works of, say, three horizontal lines separating solid panels of different shades of white.

Fortunately there are public galleries in Canada which are interested in paintings by artists who may not be as fashionable as some of the contemporary 'artists' but are genuinely talented. Now on tour is a special exhibition, "Mary Pratt", that will last about three years. It has been organized by The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St.John's Newfoundland (Pratt's provincial residence since the 1960s) and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

The exhibition opened at The Rooms and has now moved to the Art Gallery of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario where Pat and I attended the opening weekend. Enhanced by an interesting and informative  video with Mary Pratt's comments it is a 50 year retrospective of the work of a great Canadian artist who studied art at the University of New Brunswick more than a half century ago with Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven and the later famous Canadian realist painter Alex Colville.

Mary Pratt is sometimes referred to as a "photorealist" painter, in my view a somewhat misleading word as applied to her style and output during the past half century. Yes there are paintings like "Jelly Shelf" but there are -- and they are included in the exhibition -- numerous examples of works that are neither 'domestic' objects nor 'photorealistic'. There is interesting diversity in this exhibtion.

"Fredericton (Waterloo Row)" (1972) depicts a house and trees in a pleasant setting but not in the same fashion as, say, her "Salmon on Saran" (1974). Her female nudes to be seen in "Blue Bath Water" (1983) or the series of portraits of "Donna" remind one of Colville's nudes with his wife as model. Other paintings are striking images like "The Service Station" (1978) of part of a moose carcass hanging from the hook of a tow truck; and a man and a youth shifting a large cod in "Another Province of Canada" (1979).

Mary Pratt's paintings, 75 of which are included in this new exhibition, are a joy to view. Her artistic talent is impressive, her techniques successful -- none more so than her use of light and reflection. More than a decade ago a reviewer of Pratt's book "A Personal Calligraphy" (2000) argued that an exhibition of her work "is startling. It's all about things looking just as they are, yet not being what they appear to be."  I see the point and it is well illustrated in this latest exhibition.

Pratt has said that she is a "visual artist not an intellectual one" but in her book she wrote that "I've never wanted to paint what I did not know -- intimately and sensuously. The look of things, the feel of things -- their ability to arouse me -- has led me along the paths you see in my pictures." Also that "it is easy to be tricked into thinking that a popular ideology is a satisfactory substitution for a personal philosophy. It is hard not to join the parade. My paintings investigate my observations of my own life."

For me she is also delightfully unfashionable (and seems not to care) not only in certain sections of the art world but in certain of her attitudes. "I am personally opposed," she has said," to a world awash with easy information and facts. I prefer to discover things for myself and celebrate those in my painting."

The Mary Pratt exhibition is one that both Pat and I enjoyed and may well attend again. The Art Gallery of Windsor is located in a new building on Riverside Drive in Windsor and enjoys a gorgeous view of and across the Detroit River. The exhibition stays in Windsor until Jan. 5, 2014. For details visit www.artgalleryofwindsor.com

 After its stay in Windsor, the Pratt Exhibtion moves to the McMichael Canadian Gallery (near Toronto) from Jan.18 through April 27, 2014; then to the MacKenzie Gallery in Regina  from May 16 to Aug. 27, 2014 and concludes in Halifax from Sept. 12 throuugh Jan.11, 2015 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Sources on Mary Pratt and her art:

Tom Smart, "The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light" (1995).

Mary Pratt,  "A Personal Calligraphy" (2000)

A volume of essays by Sandra Gwyn & Gerda Moray entitled "Mary Pratt" (1989)

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***************************

About this column:

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access columns go to the blog
archive the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website -- and use the links.

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as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

(No.248) Pseudonymous novels by John Banville & J.K.Rowling


"Pseudonymous novels by John Banville and J.K. Rowling --

and some other recent novels"

by Alastair Rickard 



Mark Twain said that "every time I read "Pride And Prejudice" I want to dig Jane Austen up and beat her over the skull with her shin-bone".

As Twain's comment illustrates, the source of great pleasure or dislike from reading is a highly individual thing, often both unpredictable and idiosnycratic.

Many of us who like reading fiction have favourite novelists whose books we so enjoy that we don't just anticipate them with pleasure we await them eagerly. In various RickardsRead columns several of the writers whose work I most enjoy have been included. Recently I enjoyed reading the latest novels of several novelists who are among my favourites.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym adopted by Irish novelist John Banville, a writer of literary novels and a winner of the Booker Prize. Banville took this pen name not to cloak his identity but to establish a separate publishing personna for what turned out to be a series of 'crime' genre novels.

Set in Dublin in the 1950s the principal continuing character is a medical doctor named Quirke, a pathologist affiliated with a major hospital whose Dublin police detective friend involves him occasionally in murder cases. This sounds formulaic for a crime/detective novel. Banville's aren't.

The novels in ths Quirke series, of which there are now six, are not only beautifully written but inspired  as much by character as plot. Quirke is a complex man with many personal problems. The latest novel in the series "Holy Orders" (2013) is every bit as absorbing as its predecessors. They are rewarding reading whether one seeks the 'crime/mystery' genre or not.

My advice for those who take up reading this series of novels by Benjamin Black is to read them in the order of their publication to properly appreciate the challenges of Quirke's life. The novels proceed chronologically and contain references to previous stories.

The three novels immediately preceding "Holy Oders" are "Vengeance" (2012), "A Death in Summer" (2011) and "Elegy For April" (2010).

                                                            ****************

Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of another established novelist but one who did use it in order to hide her identity: J.K. Rowling, the hugely successful English wrter of the Harry Potter series.

Rowling's first post-Potter novel, "The Casual Vacancy," was directed at an adult audience. My impression was that the critics, especially in the UK, were waiting to give her negative reviews -- and many did. I thought it was unfair and apparently she did too.

She decided to write her next novel for adults, "The Cuckoo's Call" published earlier this year, using a closely guarded secret pseudonym -- Robert Galbraith. An insider leaked the secret but not before the novel -- and Robert Galbraith -- received favourable reviews. It demonstrated that she got more even-handed reviews when critics thought it was a new writer they did not know.

And the novel, a private detective mystery set in today's London, is great reading. I could hardly put it down.

The central character named Cormoran Strike is a former British Army military policeman who lost half a leg serving in Aghanistan. He is the illegitimate son of an aging British rock star and a drug-addled groupie. As a private investigator he's barely hanging on financially and not at all in his relationship with his on again-off again female lover. And then a rich client with a long ago connection to Strike walks into his office.

The plot's twists are convincing as are the personal and professional complications of Strike's life. Rowling writing as Galbraith turns Strike into the sort of fascinating character ready made for a series like Banvllle (as Black) has written featuring Quirke. And I do hope she does.

                                                                *******************

Several more of my recent enjoyable reads also deserve at least brief reference in this column.

Philip Kerr's latest Bernie Gunther novel is " A Man Without Breath" (2013). Gunther, the pre-WWII Berlin cop forced into the SS finds himself involved with the uncovering of the Katyn mass grave of thousands of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets. One of my favourite series of novels and principal characters.

Lee Child's series of Jack Reacher novels are addictive and can be consumed at the speed of junk food snacks. The plot of the latest, "Never Go back" (2013),  draws on Reacher's time as a U.S. Army major and MP to tell a story about how and why he is set up for accusations of past offences.

Carl Hiassen is a journalist who, despite having become a very successful novelist, still writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald. His novels set in Florida are mainly very effective dark humour tied to off-center plots. The latest, "Bad Monkey", again features former Miami cop Andrew Yancy. It has not yet become a true 'Yancy' series but it may become one.

"Dark Summer in Bordeaux" (2012) is the second volume in Scottish writer Alan Massie's Bordeaux trilogy.  The first volume was "Death In Bordeaux" (2010) and publication date for the third volume has not been announced.

The novels are set in the city of Bordeaux in south-western France just before and after its occupation by Germany in WWII. The central character is a French policeman, Supt. Lannes,  and his family members. Superior writing makes it as much or more a literary novel than one of the police detective genre. The novels really need to be read in order as they tell a continuous story.

"Devil's Cave" is the fifth in Martin Walker's crime/police detective novels set today in France's Perigord/Dordogne region. The series is not dark or gritty in the way that, say, Kerr's stories are. The novels revolve around small town chief of police Bruno Courreges. I suspect the stories appeal as much to those who like reading abut French food, cooking and rural culture as those who like mysteries. Pleasant but unchallenging reading.

"Water For Elephants" by Sara Gruen is a story tied largely to the people and activity in a struggling American circus in the 1930s as recalled by a man now in his 90s who was part of the circus for a time. Fascinating, well written, interesting with a truly inventive plot. The novel was first published in 2006 and is still available in soft cover.

*****************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com 

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go the blog
archive the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appear on the RickardsRead.com website --
and use the links.

to set a Google Alert in order to receive automatic notice of new columns
as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
www.google.com/alert

                                                                 *******************        


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

(No.247) The legacies of several great art collectors


"The legacies of several great art collectors
on display in London, Philadelphia, Boston and Vienna"

by Alastair Rickard


Some of the most interesting and rewarding art collections Pat and I have visited have been the expressions of the particular interests, obsessions and eccentricities of wealthy individual collectors.

Instead of having been donated to and subsumed within large public museums these collections continue largely or entirely unchanged to present the face to the public that their collectors wanted and required be continued after their deaths.

Four of these personal art collections, each housed in its own grand home, are the subject of this column. Their impressive holdings of fine art make them a destination worth the travel:

The Wallace Collection in London
The Barnes Collection in Philadelphia
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Vienna

Unchanged since 1890 the Wallace Collection is the reflection of the tastes and resulting art acquisitions of five generations of the the family who assembled it: the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), the illegitimate son of the 4th marquess. Wallace's widow left it and its home to the nation.

Opened to the public (admission is free) in 1900 the Wallace Collection is housed in Hertford House, a mansion located on Manchester Square in London. The collection is static. Nothing has been added, nothing can be sold and no object of the 5000 in its 25 galleries can be lent.

And what a collection it is: Old Masters, 18th century French paintings, furniture, porcelain, armour etc etc. For example: the paintings include several each by Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and many other artists including 22 by Canaletto, one of my favourite painters.

( visit www.wallacecollection.org)

                                                           *************

Between 1912 and 1951 a Philadelphia businessman Dr. Alfred Barnes collected paintings and other art of astonishingly impressive quality including what may be the finest collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintng anywhere this side of the D'Orsay in Paris. It includes (literally) dozens of paintings each by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and multiples of many other artists' work.

Barnes installed his collection in his Merion Pennsylvania home outside Philadelphia where it was to remain forever. He decided on the precise positioning on the walls of each piece of art.

After much controversey and dispute, a new home was built for the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. It opened in May of 2012. It is a very modern style of structure, stark and stone clad. Inside the new building the 23 rooms in which Barnes arranged his collection in Merion have been duplicated with the hanging of the pieces replicated down to the last centimetre.

The eccentric Dr. Barnes personally determined the hanging of every piece in his collection and grouped pieces in what he called "ensembles". He frequently revisited these arrangements and reordered them but following his death in a car accident in 1951 the "ensembles" in which the Collection was displayed remained frozen, rather like bees in amber. And so they appear in their new home in Philadelphia.

So chock-a-block are the works on the walls of the galleries there is no room, even had Barnes permitted it, for traditional information cards posted adjacent to the works of art on display. Audioguides are available.

To view the Barnes Foundation Collection is a great art experience, one enhanced by its recent relocation to its new home in Philadelphia.

(visit www.barnesfoundation.org)

                                                              ***************

In March of 1990 two men propelled the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to a much higher public profile: they robbed the museum of 13 major works of art the current market value of which would exceed $500 million. The stolen items have never been recovered.

The Gardner Museum keeps displayed on its walls the original (now empty) frames from which the stolen paintings were cut.

The museum itself (the original building and the collection within it of paintings, tapestries, sculptures and decorative arts) are all the expression of the tastes of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). She inherited wealth from her father in 1891 and then more from her husband less than a decade later.

She set out to collect art and did so on a grand scale. She hired an architect who built the museum in which to house her collection -- and did it to her specifications. It opened to the public in 1903.

The galleries are rooms gathered around a striking, four story courtyard/atrium. The rooms, both large and small, are filled with paintings. furniture, tapestries and other art objects. It is an impressive building, Gardner's vision and version of a 15th century Venetian palace.

Some of the gallery walls are so jammed with various types of art that it reminded me of the sort of display which Dr. Barnes used.

A particular point of interest is the commissioned life size portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, one which she required him to amend several times until she was satisfied with it.

Like Barnes and Wallace she set forth what was to be done with her collection and museum after her death. She stipulated that any departure would prompt a sale and the donation of the resulting funds to Harvard University.

While the original museum and its displays must (apart from the stolen art) look very much as they did during Gardner's life, the museum trustees ended up with court approval of their desire to add a modern wing. Designed by the architect Renzo Piano and very recently completed it is the sort of structure which, like the Barnes Collection's new home, doubtless pleases those who -- unlike me -- enjoy modern architecture juxtaposed with traditional.

Stewart Gardner's collection remains in the original museum to which the new wing is connected by an enclosed walkway. The modern addition houses a restaurant and various support and special exhibiton space.

I came away from the visit with an overall impression of rather too much 'stuff' crowded into too many dimly lit rooms, but our visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was a happily unique experience.

(see www.gardnermuseum.org)

                                                             ******************

Carl Jacobsen (1842-1914) was the son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. He was a passionate collector of art and his legacy to the people of Denmark is the collection housed in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen.

Jacobsen accumulated the largest private art collection in Scandinavia. By 1882 the young industrialist and art collector had so many sculptures that he opened his collection to the public in the winter garden of his home. He called this The Glyptothek at Ny Carlsberg.

The museum, today occupying four buildings, is located not far from the famous Tivoli Gardens in central Copenhagen. Over the years it received various parts of his collection and now holds more than 10,000 works divided between  ancient and modern collections. The first building opened to the public in 1897.

The Glyptotek was essentially divided between being a sculpture museum (ancient and modern, including  large Rodin and Degas collections) and its collection of paintings.

There is a large and fascinating collection of paintings by Danish artists of the Golden Age as well as a European collection from the 18th century on.

It is noteworthy that in 1913 Jacobsen paid for the statue The Little Mermaid by Edvard Eriksen which was set up at Langelinie and has become, rather like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, a major tourist stop for the city in which it is located.

When we visited the Glyptotek the museum's noteworthy collection of 19th century French paintings -- including more than 40 by Gauguin -- were unavailable for viewing. That was a disappointment but the museum and the rest of its collection was still impressive and worth the visit, for me no part more than the palm-filled Winter Garden with its fountain, benches and high dome.

(see www.glyptoteket.com)

*********************************************

email: alastair.rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
archive the links to which are located chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website --
and use the links.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

(No.246) "Are cruise ships killing Venice?"


"Are cruise ships stopping in Venice 
hastening the destruction of the historic city? "

by Alastair Rickard

Is the magnificent city of Venice dying? Many people think so.

That area constituting the historic city of Venice in a northern Adriatic lagoon has a population of only 60,000. Most of the city's working life is carried on by commuters. The deputy mayor of Paris, the most visited city in the world, recently told Le Parisien that "we don't want to become like Venice, a city devoid of inhabitants due to tourism."

Venice's high waters, getting higher steadily, have resulted in an average of 100 floods a year. The so-called Great Flood of 1966 destroyed $6 billion of artwork. The subsequent Italian government plan to protect the city is still incomplete after the expenditure of more than $7 billion.

If global warming and rising sea levels and associated floods don't finish off this Italian city (and the still incomplete flood defences don't) then visiting cruise ships and their passengers likely will.

The Venice Port Authority, among other Venetian vested interests, want even more huge cruise ships to visit the city each year, to be pulled by tugs toward the Doge's Palace then down the Guidecca Canal.

Why does this matter to the survival of Venice?

Here are a few indices of the magnitude of the problems faced by this major tourist destination:

-- In 1997 Venice was visited by 206 cruise ships; in 2011 by 655; the latter number means 1310 passages in the same canal, polluting the air, shaking the houses with their backwash, displacing water up into the canals off the Guidecca.

--The number of berths in the Venice port has been increased so it can handle 8 giant cruise ships at the same time.

-- In 1990 200,000 tourists disembarked from cruise ships in Venice; by 2000 this figure had increased to 337,000; in 2007 the total was 1 million and in 2011 1.8 million.

-- On one day in July 2011 6 cruise ships put 35,000 tourists ashore in Venice at the same time,  a human total equalling more than half the city's residential population.

-- It is worth noting that cruise ships disembark mainly single day visitors to the city who are not even counted in compiling Venice's 6.3 million visitors a year (i.e., those counted as 'visitors' in this total are those who stay over at least one night).

-- Most of Venice's tourists, like first time visitors to the Louvre in Paris who head straight for the painting of the Mona Lisa, want to see St.Mark's Square. It used to be called the drawing room of Europe and is today likened -- because of the crush of tourists now overwhelming Venice -- to the crowded concourse of a major railway station.

After the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground on the island of Giglio on Jan. 13, 2012 an Italian government decree banned ships of more than 40,000 tons from sailing down Venice's Guidecca Canal. [Most of the modern cruise ships are more than this tonnage, often much more.]

The decree has been ignored.

UNESCO reports predict that as sea levels continue to rise Venice will flood twice a day every day in the spring of the year because of tidal ocillation. Buildings in the city have already been seriously degraded by periodic flooding and the 'rising damp'.

Can the death of Venice be far behind?

***************************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
archive the links to which appear chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website --
and use the links.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

(No.245) About the Economical Insurance Co.: is Rickard a "crackpot & blatant liar"?


"About the Economical Insurance Company: 
is Rickard of RickardsRead.com "a crackpot and a blatant liar"? 
Yes, according to one correspondent
(plus an update on Manulife )"

by Alastair Rickard

During the past few years I have posted a number of columns on RickardsRead.com about the proposed demutualization of Economical Insurance, a mutual property and casualty insurance company based
in Waterloo Ontario since 1873. All the columns have been critical of and opposed to the demutualization plan for the company advanced by its management and board which would award the equity in the company (perhaps, they hope, as much as ca. $1 million each) to fewer than 1,000 of the 1+million policyholders of the company.

The most recent column, "Economical Insurance Co. -- Insiders with more nerve than a canal horse"
(No. 241) was posted on July 18, 2013. It prompted a number of responses from readers, none more interestingly hostile than one I reprint (below) in its entirety.

Consistent with the longstanding practice of RickardsRead.com I will withhold the name of the writer but for the benefit of readers briefly identify him by his interest and/or connection to the subject.

The writer was a senior salaried employee of Economical Insurance. He is also an 'equity' policyholder in the company who seems to be anxious about the delay by Ottawa in providing a regime for P & C company demutualization.

"I see you have crawled from under your rock again, after about a year to take another swipe at the Economical demutualization process. The process which, as you know, is perfectly legal and written into the Economical bylaws.

"I am a retired employee of Economical and take exception to the way you have portrayed the Economical Mutual policyholders to your '40' or so subscribers [sic], in your 'rants'. Far and away, most mutual policyholders (including myself) of the Economical are ordinary folk. But that is not what you are portraying in your 'rants'. You characterize them as Directors and Senior managers, but that group comprises less than 3% of the total. So you are an outright liar & definitely a crackpot.

"But more seriously, I have concerns you are receiving inside information on the demtualization process. Last year you indicated the demutualization process will be spread out. None of us knew this. Now, you seem to have inside knowledge as to how these regulations will play out. Even a blatant liar and a crackpot such as yourself could not have come to this conclusion. And this is my concern."

The foregoing email, obviously written in a fit of exasperation, sets up and then knocks down several straw men.

I do not intend to reply here to each of the comments made by this Economical Insurance insider, neither the silly nor the ad hominem. Nor will I present in this column excerpts from emails I received agreeing with my comments or from emails referring to possible class actions.

However there are three points I do wish to make:

1. It would be unfair to federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty and his staff in Finance for me to allow to pass unremarked the assertion that I have been receiving "inside information" about the development of a regime to govern the demutualization of p & c insurance companies. I have not.

2. My comments about the small group of Economical Insurance "voting policyholders" (i.e., those seeking to have the company demutualize and then divide a $billion+ in corporate equity among them) embraced company "insiders".

    The "insider" group includes but is not limited to the company's directors and senior managers (current and former). It was a group whose members over time had both the knowledge and the opportunity not available to most of the company's policyholders to acquire a "voting" policy from Economical.

3. RickardsRead.com does not have "subscribers". The columns posted on it are available to be read by anyone with access to the Internet.

The demutualization of a federal p & c insurance company like Economical, whatever else it involves, is at root about an action that would if it followed the Economical proposal mean a relative handful of Economical policyholders getting rich off a socially useless scheme involving almost entirely other people's money.

That reality is not altered by an inability or refusal to recognize fact.

                                                                    *****

I have written several columns in recent years about the near disaster which threatened to take down Manulife, the Toronto-headquartered Canadian life insurance company whose senior management for years chased hundreds of millions of dollars of new variable insurance contracts the return from which it guaranteed.

In order to increase company profits (and therefore also profit-related executive compensation) to even higher levels Manulife in 2004 stopped hedging the unwise risk it was assuming in great dollar volumes.

What happened to Manulife, when the Wall Street-generated meltdown began to occur in 2007-8, was inevitable. As Manulife's net exposure to guaranteed variable policies hit $72 billion by Sept. 2008 the company headed toward the financial ditch.

In a recent column (No. 238: "Manulife and Turkey: some interesting numbers", posted June 17, 2013) I referred to an Ontario Superior Court hearing scheduled for June involving a class action against Manulife. The required court certification of a class action was to be sought.

Shareholders of Manulife had launched a class action in 2009 claiming $500 million from the company, former CEO Dominic D'Alessandro and former CFO Peter Rubenovitch over the company's risk management policies and practices.

On July 25, 2012 the 20 page ruling of Mr. Justice Edward Belobaba was released. The judge certified the investors' class action lawsuit. As the Financial Post reported (July 26, 2012) the plaintiffs, whose claim was filed by the Siskinds law firm of London, Ontario, have permission to seek relief under provisions of the Ontario Securities Act that allow investors to sue for "secondary market misrepresentation". The claim also seeks common law damages for negligence, negligent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.

Stay tuned.

*********************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
archive the links to which appear chronologically in the margin beside each
column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website -- and use the links.

to set a Google Alert in order to receive automatic notice by email
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***********************************  

Monday, August 12, 2013

(No.244)"Cable news: home of the callow & the sanctimonious"


"Cable news: home of the callow and sanctimonious
(plus items on Canadian banks, Picasso in Las Vegas and Conrad Black)"

by Alastair Rickard


I have long since become resigned to the careful use of spoken English continuing to decline in television journalism coincident with the cultural 'advance' of electronic communication with its emoticons, acronyms, Twitter limitations, etc). But it is still irritating to watch the decline in the standard of English usage among the very class of persons who ought to be one of its bulwarks: broadcast journalists.

The CBC in Canada, always anxious to be seen as inclusive and non-elitist, puts on air younger reporters (especially but not exclusively) whose lack of facility with properly spoken English serves to promote its misuse like the debasing of a currency.

Just one example: the other day I heard a CBC broadcast journalist reporting from the scene of a relatively minor tragedy, an event certainly some distance from one signalling the end of the world, use the following words within a minute or two: unthinkable, indescribable, unimaginable and incredible.

Clearly the matter being reported did not qualify for the use of any of these words if they retain their actual meaning. But such hyperbole has become routine in television journalism, especially on cable news broadcasts.

It involves the misuse of language in the service of promoting attention (and ratings) among those people who -- the networks believe -- must be stimulated to watch by the use of verbal hype, by endowing something or other with phoney gravitas or salaciousness. Meaningful context is usually missing:  too time consuming to provide; too much risk of straining the average viewer's supposed brief attention span; might promote distraction from the 'headline' focus (i.e., ratings).

What would be an example of a fact, a reality that might begin to approach providing justification for the use of such hyperbolic language?

How about this?

In terms of Japan's record of mistreating prisoners of war before and during WWII, its greatest crime was not (as many in the west understandably think) against POWs it captured in fighting the western allies in World War II (about a 30% death rate overall) but the Chinese. On Dec.7, 1941 -- the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- after 4 years of war in China, the Japanese  held some 340,000 Chinese POWs. At the end of the war in 1945 fewer than 100 [sic] remained alive.

Do you think that the next time a cable news story involving some aspect of continuing tensions between China and Japan is reported (if it is reported at all) that even this much or comparable context will be provided? Don't hold your breath.

Linguistic flatulence does make a contribution to feeding today's popular media culture especially as embodied by the comments of the callow and the sanctimonious who are increasingly prominent. CNN, in pandering to those U.S. viewers they believe are interested above all in crimes and misfortunes involving attractive blond females, makes CBC news coverage look consistently elevated.

Under its recently installed senior management CNN pursued higher ratings by spending almost all day every day for several weeks on one event, one trial and the post-trial period: i.e., the shooting of a 17 year old Florida youth by a self-appointed neighbourhood 'guardian'.

Where was the needed context, the perspective, the proportionality for this sort of massively excessive 'news' coverage? There wasn't.

This single unfortunate shooting happened in a country in which more than 30,000 of its citizens become gun death statistics each year, an average of more than 80 a day, and in a country in which every year twice as many people are killed by guns than die in terrorist attacks worldwide.

But then 'news' network executives can smell a story they can build into a likely ratings succcess as readily as a feral cat roaming an alley can find an opened tin of salmon. Forget about proportionality related to importance.

                                                               ****

In the second of a two part column on Las Vegas and a few of its curiosities (No.221, "Las Vegas nocturnes: Monet & the Cirque du Soleil") I referred to Steve Wynn, the most creative and sophisticated entrepreneur in the modern history of Las Vegas.

Wynn was and is a collector of major works of art. A valuable painting in his personal collection was Picasso's Le Reve which he had bought in 1997 for $48 million. In 2006 he had arranged to sell it for $139 million to hedge fund player Steve Cohen. However while showing the painting to some guests Wynn (who has degenerative eye disease and is now legally blind) turned and put his elbow through the painting.

The sale was cancelled and Wynn sent the painting for a major restoration effort. It has recently been reported that Wynn has now sold the restored Picasso to Cohen for $155 million.

                                                            ****

Terry Campbell is the president of the Canadian Bankers Association. I knew him slightly several years ago when we were part of the same financial services working group. He is a very able and articulate advocate and has proven to be an excellent choice as head of the CBA.

Earlier this year he wrote an op-ed piece for the Financial Post (March 19, 2013). In it he explained the reasons, as he saw them, for a rise in Canadians' "favourable view of banks in Canada." One main reason, he argued, is that during the the world financial crisis five years ago Canadian banks were seen by Canadians as "well run and well regulated."

I have in several columns in the past few years commented that the fact no Canadian bank failure
occurred post-2007 had mainly to do, despite Candian bankers taking international bows,  with strong federal government prudential regulations vigorously enforced by the federal regulator OSFI which prevented Canadian bankers from treading the same disastrous financial paths as many of their American and European counterparts did.

Conrad Black also expressed an opinion in one of his weekly columns in the National Post (March 23, 2012): "Canada was spared (the) fate (of bank failure and govt. bailout) only by the fact that Canadian banking is a tightly regulated six-bank cartel, not by the genius of our bankers -- contrary to their frequent insinuations otherwise."

                                                               ****

In a RickardsRead column "Executing the innocent as well as the guilty" (No.242) I reviewed some of the causes and results involving the conviction of accused persons in the U.S. who are later shown to have been innocent, the conviction having been based on faulty evidence.

One of the causes I cited for this state of affairs was wrong eyewitness testimony. One recent American analysis of 40 cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned individuals revealed that 36 of the 40 convictions involved incorrect eyewitness identification of the innocent (but convicted) person.

It occurs to me that, whatever the objections from the prosecutorial fraternity, the reality of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony -- long known to criminal counsel -- should be used as a caution when charging juries (at the very least). It would doubtless also be useful news for television watchers who in the main seem to believe in the verisimilitude of American courtroom dramas.

************************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
archive the links to which appear chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website --
and use the links

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

(No.243) "The Shaw Festival, drama critics & stoat pate"


"The Shaw festival, drama critics and stoat liver pate:
two more plays in the 2013 Shaw season"

by Alastair Rickard


I have written other columns for RickardsRead.com about drama critics and not only how their views of a play can differ but why, seeing the same play they have reviewed, I am led to wonder if indeed they attended the same play I did.

The nature of criticism in the arts is often idiosyncratic and partial with critics' praise often tending to be given disproportionately to the trendy or the unusual or the precious.

Nor is the absence of what many see as critical common sense confined to stage plays.

I think of much of what today passes for art criticism which elevates the silly and the untalented -- for example, the American Agnes Martin's 1981 'white painting' (untitled) -- to the status of serious art using pretentious and precious language like "making white seem as if it floats off the page".

Or by characterizing -- 25 years on -- as "the one truly vital voice of the 80s" the musical meanderings in 1980s Manchester of The Smiths (including co-founder Steven Patrick Morrissey), pretending that The Smiths' rock music wasn't largely noise masquerading as the 'meaningful' social preoccupation of what is today a fairly minor pop music cult.

"Lady Windermere's Fan", one of the plays Pat and I saw during our first visit to this season's Shaw Festival was I concluded (RickardsRead, No.237), a production that "works reasonably well except for a bit too much effort for my taste to appear trendy and precious in staging, design and music" but it is "worth seeing."

In the reviews of the play I read subsequent to our seeing the play the drama critics of the major Toronto dailies -- far from differing in their reception of this play -- embraced it enthusiastically.

Such comprehensive praise underlines yet again the fact that professional arts criticsm is often like food tasting: the 'expert' can tell his audience that stoat liver pate tastes ever so grand but how it actually
strikes one's palate may be quite another matter.

In our second visit to this season's Shaw Festival Pat and I saw "Guys And Dolls" and "Enchanted April", both presented in the main Festival Theatre.

"Guys and Dolls"  is the umpteenth revival of yet another in a very long line of Broadway hit musicals, a type of production which has become a crowd-drawing staple on which both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals have come to rely for financial sustenance.

Frank Loesser's 1950 hit has racked up more mileage than a still-operating 1957 Chevy in Havana. While such musical revivals staged anywhere are not high on my list of favourites, the Shaw version is more than a respectable production. Pat thought it was well done for its type. The audience of which we were members loved the production and most gave it a standing ovation.

We also saw "Enchanted April", the 2000 adaptation as a play by American Matthew Barber of the 1922 novel by Australian-born Elizabeth von Arnim. The plot in a nutshell: four Englishwomen in drab post-First World War London club together to rent an Italian seaside villa for a month -- without husbands.  As sitcom promos used to say -- complications ensue.

The Globe and Mail's Kelly Nestruk thinks the Shaw production of "Enchanted April"  is an "altogether charming incarnation ... pulled off with undeniable polish".  In contrast the Toronto drama critic with whom I most often agree was rather less than impressed. Robert Cushman of the National Post concluded his review with some wondering: "what this second-rate confection is doing on the main stage of one of our two premier theatre festivals, I cannot say. It doesn't even have the excuse of being a musical."

Pat thought "Enchanted April" one of the two better productions we saw at Shaw this season. The other was "Lady Windermere's Fan" which she rated behind "Enchanted April".

My assessment of "April" landed somewhere between the opinions of Nestruk and Pat on the one hand and that of Cushman on the other. I thought the play, while nothing very substantial, pleasantly entertaining in a modest way.

********

"Guys And Dolls" is at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-On-The-Lake  through Oct.12, 2013.

"Enchanted April", also at the Festival Theatre, runs through Oct.26,2013.

For details visit www.Shawfest.com

**************************************


email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go the blog
archive the links to which appear chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website -- and
use the links.

to set a 'Google alert' in order to receive automatic notice by email
of new columns as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
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Sunday, July 28, 2013

(No.242) Executing the innocent as well as the guilty


" Executing the innocent as well as the guilty:
the death penalty as a punishment when errors cannot be remedied"

by Alastair Rickard


When I was a high school student I took part in a formal debate about capital punishment. I was on a team which opposed the imposition of the death penalty. My personal view was also against it.

I still am opposed to the death penalty but mainly today for a different reason than in that long ago debate. The use of the death penalty cannot be defended rationally; the error rate for conviction of capital crimes -- specifically in the U.S. but also Canada -- is too high.

Perhaps I would not today object to the death penalty per se as punishment for premeditated murder if society could be sure of the guilt of the convicted person to be executed -- but it cannot. Too few murderers are as certain candidates for execution as, say, Clifford Olson or Paul Bernardo. Therefore I am today still opposed to the death penalty

The reasons society cannot and should not impose the death penalty on convicted defendants include corrupt and faulty police practises in some cases, defective and/or  invalid forensic evidence, prosecutors more interested in a 'win' than in ensuring that justice is done, inadequate defence counsel for the accused, (in the U.S.) judges up for re-election, 'expert witness' testimony for the prosecution based on junk science (e.g., bite marks), false eyewitness testimony (a notoriously unreliable source), etc etc.

In the United States the Innocence Project recently celebrated the exoneration of the 200th inmate, 143 of whom were on death row awaiting execution. The availability in recent years of DNA evidence has been a major factor.

The magnitude of the challenge for the 35 organizations who are part of the "Innocence Network" is indicated by the fact that at the end of 2011 there were 3,082 persons on death row in the U.S. In both 2011 and 2012 43 executions took place, down from the peak of 98 in 1999.

Perhaps 60% of the U.S. public continue to favour the death penalty and, since its restoration to a part in the legal system by the U.S. Supreme Court after a four year hiatus, executions have resumed led by four states: Texas, Florida, California and Arizona. This quartet accounts for half of all inmates sentenced to death.

Many Americans oppose the death penalty, some of them for the same reason that I do -- the risk and the reality of the execution of people innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted and sentenced to die. There are those -- including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- who deny, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that innocent people are executed after being processed by the U.S. justice system.

This pro-death penalty support in the face of the evidence from the work of the Innocence Project and other such efforts is irrational to say the least. It is all the more so when one reads the views of various people close to the process. For example, Rev. Carroll Pickett the death house chaplain for 16 years in Texas who accompanied 95 people to the execution chamber.

We in Canada have nothing to feel smug about in comparison with our American neighbours. While Canada has not executed anyone since Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin were hanged back to back at the Don Jail in Toronto in 1962, we limped along with no end in law to the death penalty until 1976 for civilians and 1998 for the military.

Indeed so strong was and continues to be Canadian public opinion in support of restoring the death penalty (at least 61% in 1987 and 62% in 2009) that while a 1987 free vote in the House of Commons to restore the death penalty failed, it was not defeated by a huge vote (148 to 127).

Had Canada retained the active use of the death penalty after 1962 one thinks of the many wrongfully convicted Canadians who would almost certainly have been executed but who were instead still alive in prison when their innocence was established. Just a few examples: David Milgaard, Donald Marshall, Thomas Sophonow, Guy Paul Morin and William Mullins-Johnson among many others.

Anyone who supports the death penalty because of a belief in the infallibility in death penalty cases of either the American or Canadian justice systems is naive or uninformed or both.

Before their hanging in 1962 Turpin and Lucas were told they would likely be the last people hanged in Canada, to which Turpin responded "Some consolation".

Just so.

********************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
archive the links to which appear chronologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website -- and use
the links.

to set a 'Google alert' in order to receive automatic notice by email
of new columns as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
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Thursday, July 18, 2013

(No.241) Economical Insurance Co. -- insiders with more nerve than a canal horse


"Economical Insurance Company of Waterloo, Ontario and demutualization:

its insiders have more nerve than a canal horse"                 

by Alastair Rickard


My maternal grandmother, who was too proper to use an epithet to refer to an obnoxious or wrong-headed person, did have a favourite phrase for such people: she would say they "had more nerve than a canal horse".

Her phrase came to me as I read the report (June 25, 2012) by Chuck Howitt in the Waterloo Region Record of the June 24 annual meeting of  the large Canadian mutual property and casualty insurance company Economical Insurance (founded 1871).

It should be noted that Howitt has written most of the (too few) useful newspaper articles about the proposed demutualization of the company (announced in Dec. 2010) and the fundamentally important issues related to it. In the national media most of Canada's financial services paparazzi have been too busy risking hernias carrying water for the Bay and Wall Street crowds to comment on or even take public note of this proposed demutualization.

Yet this move, if permitted by Ottawa, would -- if carried out as the company's board and management propose -- amount to the financial exclusion of hundreds of thousands of Economical's policyholders in favour of a group of 943 company insiders (i.e., "voting policyholders") who now seek to benefit richly from the accumulation of policyholder equity since 1871 and by the fact that policies carrying 'ownership' status were restricted to very limited numbers by keeping such special status policies a de facto secret for decades from most clients and company brokers alike.

Because of the paucity of attention to this matter in the financial media, including the role that must be played by the federal Dept. of Finance and its minister in coming up with a regime to govern such a P & C company demualization (this is the first), I have devoted a number of columns on RickardsRead.com to the proposed demutualization of Economical Insurance and the creation by Ottawa of a regulatory regime to govern such moves by any Canadian mutual P & C insurance company [see, via the links beside all RickardsRead.com columns, the columns numbered 159, 166, 179, 206, 208, 209 & 213]

The best detailed analysis anywhere of the key issues raised by the proposed demutualization of Economical Insurance, issues that should be addressed by the federal government, was prepared and submitted to the Finance Department by Claude Gingras, a former life insurance company general counsel as well as a former advisor on life insurance company demutualization to Finance. Gingras is Canada's leading expert on the subject.

The Minister of Finance had invited the public and interested stakeholders to make submissions on the subject of P & C demutualization. However Finance Dept. gatekeepers refused to post on the Finance website  Mr.Gingras'  comments. In certain areas his views were apparently too well informed for certain people in Finance. He refused to allow Finance to post an expurgated version of his submission. His submission was published in its entirety on RickardsRead.com (No.209).

My own submission on the issue to Finance ( it was essentially one of my previous columns on the subject) was posted by Finance but with certain passages removed. I subsequently republished my submission with the deleted passages marked.

Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty, who occupied the same role for some years in the Ontario provincial government, still has not brought forward for comment a proposed regime for demutualization.

As Howitt wrote in his June 24 Record report of the Economical Insurance annual meeting a number of the 943 voting policyholders of Economical who want to divvy up the "mutual policyholders' equity" among themselves ($1.46 billion at the end of 2012) are getting antsy. They think the wait -- for what they apparently believe will be a windfall of $1+million each -- has gone on too long; the company should hire a lawyer and sue; or bring Flaherty to their meeting; do something. They really want 'their' money.

This corporal's guard of Economical policyholders appear to be dwelling in some sort of  cloud-cuckoo-land. They actually seem to believe that Minister Flaherty will come down from the mountain carrying a tablet on which will be inscribed a demutualization approach that will enrich them -- and only them -- while ignoring the absence of a legitimate basis for doing so while at the same time dismissing the financial interests of the company's many thousands of policyholders.

And how do the members of Economcal Insurance's board of directors and senior management explain and seek to justify what they propose to do in the service of such narrow financial interests? I quote from the company's annual report for 2012 (my comments are in italics):

-- "We see demutualization as the key strategy to sustain the future success and growth of Economical ... we have made progress [with Finance] in furthering the interests of our mutual policyholders [i.e, the interests of the holders of 943 out of Economical's 1.1 million policies] and combating the many arguments by others against demutualization as we have proposed."

-- "We are demutualizing because it is the right thing to do [for whom other than the 943?] ... We will either grow or risk becoming marginalized" [nonsense; for Economical to become a stock company virtually guarantees its subsequent takeover, likely by foreign ownership, of this already large company and its post-takeover disappearance, q.v. the demutualized and then soon disappeared Mutual Life of Canada, founded 1870 also in Waterloo, Ontario]

-- "Demutualization will allow us to make the strategic acquisitions at a scale necessary to place Economical among the five largest property and casualty insurance companies in Canada [it's already in the top 10 and has over the years acquired a stable of p&c companies as subsidiaries]. Demutualization will deliver greater strength and stability for our industry and that's good for all of us."

[Economical, with assets of almost $5 billion and double the regulatory capital requirement, has ample resources as a mutual company -- including $1.4 billion retained earnings -- to use to acquire whatever it actually needs to grow at an even faster pace in Canada. Such cant from the company reminds me of one of several empty rationales used to try to justify the demutualization and inevitable subsequent disappearance of the Mutual Life of Canada which had, as a mutual and not long before its unnecessary demutualization, purchased the Canadian operations of both Prudential of England and Metropolitan Life].

Such lame attempts at explanation offered by Economical's insider group to justify their gormless attempt to divide the company's "mutual policyholders' equity" among themselves are entirely unconvncing. Their arguments are not merely pretentious crap, they are transparently so.

In fact there is a singularly conventional motive available to explain this particular proposal to demutualize generated by the small insider group:  plain, old-fashioned greed.

Consistent with this reality is the apparent celebration of 2012's 12.6% increase in "mutual policyholders' equity" by the May 2013 announcement of the termination of 143 company staff. Perhaps we are to understand that company expenses must be reduced in order to allow for increased but vitally important costs like much higher CEO compensation ($1.5 million in 2011 increased to $2.6 million in 2012).

The proposal from Economical is risible. The desire to divide $1.46 billion of "mutual policyholders' equity" among 943 "voting policyholders"  to the exclusion of others would (if accepted by Ottawa) preclude any dilution of their narrow financial self-aggrandizement by evcn the tossing of some crumbs to the holders of the company's 1.1 million policies who are outside the tight little group. Be assured that, among other clangers, Ottawa has taken note of that one.

Of course one does not need to have the forecasting skills of the 'Amazing Kreskin' to predict that if they were to somehow obtain Ottawa's permission for such a massive financial grab it would be followed by a shit storm politically for Minister Flaherty and the government and legally by what would almost certainly be the launching of a class action on behalf of all or many of Economical's 'non-voting' policyholders. Indeed, depending upon how much of the company's treasury Ottawa allows the Economical insiders to divvy among themselves, there could well be a suit(s) anyway.

Economical Insurance's 2012 annual report is distinctly perverse in its highly selective references to the demutualization so eagerly sought by the company insiders. It is as if the company's board and senior management wished the report's readers to think not in terms of realistic outcomes but rather of what the shit was doing just before it hit the fan.

Those who control and direct Economical Insurance will not get from Ottawa the sort of demutualization formula for which they so eagerly petitioned  if only because Minister Flaherty is far too wary to make such a misstep. He has been in the game of politics too long to fall into the trap of allowing his department to produce, even for public comment, the outline of what would be bound to be widely viewed as a seriously defective regulatory regime but one that would become the vade-mecum for senior executives in terms of federal P & C demutualizations.

Nor will Flaherty, I predict, fall for the cack-handed attempt by some associated with Economical Insurance to grab all or even most of the demutualization pie for themselves.

At its June 2013 annual meeting, 2 1/2 years after the announcement  of the company's proposed  demutualization, it was reported that the chair of the board's committee on demutualization declared that "we are convinced [the regulations on demutualization] are coming."

Perhaps but be careful what you wish for ....


********************************

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns go to the blog
archive the links to which appear chonologically in the margin beside
each column as it appears on the RickardsRead.com website -- and use the links.

to set a 'Google alert' in order to receive automatic notice by email
of new columns as they are posted to RickardsRead.com, go to
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