Whatever you think about the risk of extremism being incubated in Birmingham schools or the political battles going on at the top of the Conservative Party, the contrast between the two Ofsted reports into Park View is startling to say the least. Just look at the key findings from the report issued today and compare them with comments from the 2012 report:

Park view Ofsteds

Are these really the same schools? The only summary findings which do not have a direct and emphatic rebuttal from the report two years earlier are those from a section of the current staff who appear to be concerned about leadership, feel the governors are involved inappropriately, and complain about unfair recruitment practices and feeling intimidated against speaking out. So are these courageous whistle-blowers, who were still summoning up that courage two years ago, or merely resentful staff?

What has changed? The new report refers to “considerable staff changes since the academy opened almost two years ago”. It then continues as follows:

The substantive principal, who was appointed in Spring 2012, is currently seconded to Golden Hillock School as acting principal. A Park View vice principal is currently the acting principal. The former academy principal is now the executive principal of the trust, she is due to retire at the end of the Spring Term 2014. She is being replaced by the substantive principal of Park View, who will continue in this capacity in addition to the post of executive principal of the trust. Other leaders have transferred to, or work part of their time in, the other two trust academy schools. A new vice principal and a new assistant principal have been appointed to start in April 2014.

One thing that has definitely changed is that in 2012 the school, Park View Business and Enterprise School as it was then, was a school. It then converted to academy status in April 2012, Park View School Academy of Mathematics and Science, the trust being managed by Park View Educational Trust, which then expanded into a multi-academy trust that includes Nansen Primary School and Golden Hillock School. All three have now been put into special measures.

So is it the academy programme which is the problem here rather than anything to do with extremism? A school subject to special measures can be subjected to further Ofsted inspections at very short-notice (although now we hear that no-notice inspections for all schools are being considered) to monitor its improvement. The senior managers and teaching staff can be dismissed and the school governors replaced by an appointed executive committee. This sounds very much like Park View’s recent history. It is unclear what benefit more short-notice inspections are likely to have, when their findings can differ as radically as this.

It seems fairly clear that something has gone wrong in the governance of these schools during the process of moving to a multi-academy trust, and that at least some of the school community feel that they have not had their views properly taken into account during that process. Raising the bogey of hardline Muslim extremism stalking the city’s schools, as Michael Wilshaw has done today, does not help anybody tackle this.

What also seems fairly clear is that the Ofsted inspection regime is considerably less objective than it would have us believe. Whatever changes may have occurred at this school over a two year period, at least some of the vertiginous decline from outstanding with no concerns to inadequate with few redeeming features (they came up with three in their summary) can ultimately only be explained by the last team liking the school and the new team (admittedly working in a very different climate) disliking the school. Those “likes” and “dislikes” appear to be what passes for a regulatory framework for the education of our young people. It is not nearly good enough.

 

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I was introduced to a great piece of research by Tim Jenkinson, Howard Jones and Jose Vicente Martinez this week (Tim was speaking at the Workplace Pensions Live event in Birmingham). It looked at the performance of US active equity products recommended by investment consultants (a large sample covering 90% of the investment consulting market worldwide) compared to those not recommended by them over the period 1999-2011.

What they found was that:

  • Investment consultants’ recommendations seem less heavily influenced by return-chasing strategies than by more intangible personal assessments, eg of the capabilities of fund managers, the consistency of their philosophies and the usefulness of their reports (any of those explanations for recommendations sound familiar?);
  • People tend to follow the recommendations they are given; and
  • There is no evidence that investment consultants’ recommendations add value to plan sponsors.

IC underperformanceThe underperformance of recommended funds compared to unrecommended was 1% pa on average when all funds were given an equal weighting, falling to an underperformance of 0.26% pa when weighted by the size of fund recommended. This suggests that when investment consultants move away from recommending larger funds they are doing even worse.

 

There may be other reasons for using an investment consultant other than higher returns of course. People may appreciate “a narrative that provides comfort” (similar to the placebo effect in financial advice I previously discussed here) and which gives them ready-made explanations for their own stakeholders. However, bearing in mind the consistent underperformance, why do they follow the recommendations they are given?

One reason may be that the recommendations provide cover for decisions made. Another may be regulatory pressures, eg the Pensions Regulator in the UK requires pension scheme trustees to take professional investment advice (a requirement Tim Jenkinson believes is unhelpful) and it may be viewed as odd to then ignore it.

But the report concludes that a more likely reason is that people are generally unaware of how little value is being added. Certainly studies like this one that set the problem out in such stark terms are fairly thin on the ground. The investment consultants’ world is a very concentrated one (of the $25 trillion funds under management: $4.4 trillion are managed by Aon Hewitt, $4 trillion by Mercer and $2.1 trillion by Towers Watson) and the necessary information can be difficult to get hold of.

Another reason that the underperformance may be less obvious is the impact of the recommendation itself. As John Allen Paulos explains in his classic A Mathematician Plays the Market, for an over or underperforming stock you both need the performance itself and for someone to pick it. If you always pick what the investment consultant recommends the second condition is automatically met. Sometimes that will be the lucky stock and sometimes it won’t, but you will always choose it when it is, whereas a random choice of stocks will choose it in its lucky weeks less frequently.

What all this tells us is that you cannot assume that the additional complexity investment consultants’ appear to be biased towards is adding any value to your pension scheme or business. Tim Jenkinson suggests there should be a presumption of passive investment unless a very persuasive argument for active management can be advanced. And at the small end, as he says: “if you’re not big, be simple”.

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PhoenixMention the Phoenix Four in Birmingham and you are likely to get a strong reaction. Most people knew someone who worked at MG Rover’s Longbridge plant, and many local families supplied workers for generation after generation. A huge rally brought tens of thousands onto the streets in 2000 when BMW put MG Rover up for sale, protesting against what had appeared at the time to be the most likely outcome of Alchemy Partners buying it and turning it into a low volume car manufacturer with only 2,000-3,000 of the 6,500 jobs there remaining. So there was jubilation when the ‘Phoenix Four’ group of businessmen (John Towers, John Edwards, Peter Beale and Nick Stephenson) stepped in to take the business off BMW’s hands for £10 with a further £500 million accompanying the business from BMW to sweeten the deal. By 2005 all the jobs had been lost.

A Government inquiry into Phoenix Venture Holdings (PVH – the Four’s company) reported in 2009 that The Four had managed to extract £42 million in salaries and pensions by this time. The inquiry spent 4 years and £16 million getting to grips with the convoluted machinations by which this was achieved. No criminal charges resulted. The Four were not even disqualified from being company directors. Instead, in 2011, they belatedly agreed voluntarily not to serve as directors for 3 (Edwards), 5 (Towers and Stephenson) and 6 (Beale) years respectively.

In January last year, the Executive Counsel to the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) finally turned to the advice The Four had been receiving during the whole saga, from Deloitte and specifically their head of UK corporate practice Maghsoud Einollahi, alleging that their conduct fell short of the standards reasonably expected of them in relation to Project Platinum (the project to put a deal together) and Project Aircraft (the specific deal to transfer MG Rover Group’s (MGRG’s) accumulated tax losses to a subsidiary of PVH). The tribunal ruled on these allegations last month. It makes entertaining reading unless you happen to be a former MG Rover employee.

One of the issues was that Deloitte had muddied the waters about who they were representing (MGRG or PVH) in order to mask a massive conflict of interest. As the tribunal states:

If the identity of the client is not known it is not possible to identify and consider whether there is any conflict existing or potential. That is the real importance of identifying the client. Here the client was known to the Respondents (ie Deloitte and Einollahi) a substantial time before the final existence of a letter of engagement and nothing was done about it.

The Phoenix Four were always the client. Deloitte were at all times acting on their behalf. We know too that the Respondents were represented at an MG Rover Group Limited Board Meeting and made a presentation to the Board thus suggesting that they were acting for MG Rover and not the Phoenix Four.

But my favourite bit is the extract of Einollahi’s testimony on who his client was:

Q: (reading his previous testimony) “…you did not think you had a client…”
A: (Pause) I think that is fair, that I didn’t believe I contractually had a client.
Q: Exactly
A: But
Q: And the problem is the one that I have alluded to already, that you would be holding yourself out to third parties as acting for, in this case, the group (ie MG Rover)
A: (Nods)

Following this Pinteresque dialogue, the tribunal moved on to Deloitte’s fee of £7.5 million. Part of the defence case had been that £7.5 million was not a very large fee within the context of Deloitte’s annual fee income, that contingency fees (ie which were paid only if a given result was achieved) were common and that clients were not prepared to accept different arrangements. The tribunal was not impressed:

It seems to us that Mr Einollahi would charge a contingency fee of a size he thought that he would be paid by the client without considering whether it was appropriate or not. Again when he gave evidence he was cross-examined and we refer to one question and answer.
Q: …you did not like to negotiate fees downward?
A: I didn’t – I didn’t act for people who wanted to negotiate my fees downward. I didn’t need to.

The tribunal concluded:

He wanted that fee of £7.5 million and realised that his best prospects of achieving that fee were by a deal between the Phoenix Four and HBOS rather than between MGRG and First National Finance or MGRG and HBOS

Project Aircraft, the scheme involving moving around MG Rover tax losses, had been attempted before under the title Project Salt/Slag and rejected by the Inland Revenue. Aircraft succeeded where Slag failed largely because the Revenue believed this time that MG Rover would benefit from the profits generated by the scheme.

Mr Towers said “frankly, for us, what mattered was there was a possibility here of creating cash, additional cash for the group and most particularly, for the cash-consuming part of the group which was the car company”. Mr Beale’s evidence was to the effect that MGRG benefited from the transaction because “it gave the group additional cash reserves which it could lend to MG Rover as and when required”. The Inspectors (from the Government inquiry) said at Chapter XI paragraph 17 “in practice, much of the money which the group generated from Project Aircraft was used to fund a payment to the Guernsey Trust”. (The beneficiaries of which included Messrs Beale, Edwards, Stephenson and Towers.) The Inspectors continued “immediately before Barclays Bank made its £121 million loan (which also paid off a previous loan and some other creditors), PVH had credit balances on its bank accounts totalling £2,184,083. The loan increased the credit balances to £14,736,629, enabling the company on 26 June 2002, without having received any money from any outside source in the interim, to pay £7,905,125 to the Guernsey trust (as well as paying £2,261,875 to Deloitte in respect of fees for Project Aircraft). No payment was made by PVH to MGRG at this stage, or in fact at any time before November 2003.

The tribunal continued:

Mr Einollahi undoubtedly played a significant part in Project Aircraft. He must have been aware, and admits that he was so aware, that the Phoenix Four were on holiday in Portugal in 2001 and while on holiday agreed between themselves to pay themselves very substantial bonuses. They in fact paid themselves collectively about £7 million after the conclusion of the Project Aircraft transaction. These sums came essentially from assets of MGRG and were used to make these very substantial payments to the Phoenix Four. They received the whole of the proceeds and MGRG received none.

In conclusion, the tribunal said:

They (ie Deloitte and Einollahi) placed their own interests ahead of that of the public and compromised their own objectivity. This was a flagrant disregard of the professional standards expected and required and was in each individual case, and of its own, serious misconduct.

The Executive Counsel, who had made the complaints, asked for a severe reprimand and a fine of between £15 million and £20 million. They also requested that Einollahi be excluded from membership of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and wales (ICAEW) for 6 months and fined an amount based on an assessment of his financial resources. Deloitte suggested instead that the fine should only be £1 million and Einollahi should not be fined at all.

At this point, in my view, the tribunal lost its way a little. They decided on a severe reprimand and a fine of £14 million for Deloitte. This was calculated as follows:

We have assessed the financial gain from the fees attributable to both Project Platinum and Project Aircraft with a deduction for the total amount of recorded costs against these projects. We have added interest at 1% over base rate to deny Deloitte any financial gain from the misconduct.

This raises an interesting question about what calculations other firms might make in the future about the chances of ending up in a tribunal like this and the likely consequences against the rewards of the deals themselves. If worst case scenario is that they won’t make a profit, I remain unconvinced that this will prove much of a deterrent.

They added:

We have borne very much in mind that Deloitte is not insured against the imposition of a fine and has undertaken to indemnify Mr Einollahi against any fine imposed upon him.

It is heartwarming to see them looking after their errant employee in this way, but their insurance arrangements should be of no interest to anyone.

Einollahi himself was excluded for 3 years rather than the 6 months requested by the Counsel, but only because he was not prepared to voluntarily relinquish his practising certificate. He also refused to cooperate with the assessment of his financial resources, leading to the tribunal to put a bit of a finger in the air and opt for a fine of £250,000.

So what now? The tribunal made much of the public interest in the hearings:

It was particularly important in the case of both Project Platinum and Project Aircraft that the public interest be considered because of the concern of inter alia the Government, employees, other employers, particularly in the West Midlands, creditors and the general public about the continuation of large scale car manufacturing in the West Midlands.

The importance of considering the public interest is further emphasised because both the Projects resulted in very large sums of money that might have been utilised for the benefit of the MG Rover Group in the running of its business instead, being used for the benefit of individuals, including the Phoenix Four.

But what is the public interest? My assumption would have been that it must primarily be about the portion of the general public which was most damaged by all this, namely the MG Rover workers who lost their jobs and their communities. The local MP, Richard Burden, agrees. The Trust Fund for former MG Rover workers, which John Towers had at one point said would have over £50 million in it, was finally wound up earlier this year when the £23,000 actually available was donated by the workers to a local hospice.

The £14.25 million awarded in fines would normally go to the Consultative Committee of Accounting Bodies (CCAB), an umbrella group for several professional bodies, which pays the costs of FRC disciplinary cases. However in this case the costs of the proceedings of just under £4 million have already been charged to Deloitte on top. Is the case for meeting the costs of future disciplined accountants really greater than the public interest in making some contribution to the communities that the FRC’s members have facilitated into the ground?

There will be some time to make this decision in. Depressingly, Deloitte and Einollahi filed formal notice on 1 October that they are appealing the decision, as indeed they have contested everything that wasn’t nailed down throughout the process. Their joint statement read as follows:

“We recognise the general desire to move on from this case but do not agree with the main conclusions of the tribunal which we feel could create significant uncertainty for individual members and member firms of the ICAEW.”

After all, if it ever became accepted that consultants had any responsibility to the most vulnerable people affected by their less-than-professional manoeuvrings, where might it end? There is no time limit on the tribunal member hearing the appeal to make a decision on whether an appeal can go forward.

Enough is enough. Deloitte should do the right thing and drop their appeal now.

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I have been thinking about the turnover of restaurants in Birmingham recently. There have been a number of new launches in the city in the last year, from Adam’s, with Michelin starred Adam Stokes, to Café Opus at Ikon to Le Truc, each replacing struggling previous ventures.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the case, in his book Antifragile, for the antifragility of restaurants. As he says: Restaurants are fragile, they compete with each other, but the collective of local restaurants is antifragile for that very reason. Had restaurants been individually robust, hence immortal, the overall business would be either stagnant or weak, and would deliver nothing better than cafeteria food – and I mean Soviet-style cafeteria food. Further, it would be marred with systemic shortages, with, once in a while, a complete crisis and government bailout. All that quality, stability, and reliability are owed to the fragility of the restaurant itself.

I wondered if this argument could be extended to terrorism, in an equally Talebian sense.

But first, three false premises:

1. Terrorist attack frequency follows a power law distribution.

Following on from my previous post, I thought I had found another power law distribution in Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise. He sets out a graph of the terrorist attack frequencies by death toll. The source of the data was the Global Terrorism Database for NATO countries from 1979 to 2009. I thought I would check this and downloaded an enormous 45Mb Excel file from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). I decided to use the entire database (ie from 1970 to 2011), with the proviso that I would use only attacks leading to at least 5 deaths to keep it manageable (as Nate Silver had done). The START definition of terrorism is that it is only committed by NGOs, and they also had a strange way of numbering attacks which, for instance, counted 9-11 as four separate attacks (I adjusted for this). I then used a logarithmic scale on each axis and the result is shown below. Not even straightish, so probably not quite a power law distribution, it has a definite downward curve and something else entirely happening when deaths get above 500.

Terrorist attacks

In my view it certainly doesn’t support Nate’s contention of a power law distribution at the top end. On the contrary, it suggests that we can expect something worse, ie more frequent attacks with high casualties, than a power law would predict.

So what possible link could there be between terrorism and the demise of the Ikon café (there may be other restaurants where the food served met one of the other definitions of terrorism used by the Global Terrorism Database, ie intending to induce fear in an audience beyond the immediate victims, but not the Ikon)? Well, for one thing, they do have a made up statistic in common:

2. 90% of new restaurants fail within the first year.

This is a very persistent myth, most recently repeated in Antifragile, which was debunked as long ago as 2007. However, new business failures in general are still up at around 25% in the first year, which means the point that the pool of restaurants is constantly renewed by people with new ideas at the expense of those with failing ones remains valid. This process makes the restaurant provision as a whole better as a result of the fragility of its individual members.

3. 90% of terrorist groups fail within the first year.

Now I don’t know for certain whether this conjecture by David Rapoport is false, but given my experience with the last two “facts”, I would be very sceptical that the data (i) exists and (ii) is well-defined enough to give a definitive percentage. However, clearly there is a considerable turnover amongst these groups, and the methods used by them have developed often more quickly than the measures taken to counter them. Each new major terrorist attempt appears to result in some additional loss of freedom for the general public, whether it be what you can carry onto an aircraft or the amount of general surveillance we are all subjected to.

So what else do restaurants and terrorism have in common? What does a restaurant do when public tastes change? It either adapts itself or dies and is replaced by another restaurant better able to meet them. What does a terrorist group do when it has ceased to be relevant? It either changes its focus, or gets replaced in support by a group that already has. However, although individual terrorist groups will find themselves hunted down, killed, negotiated with, made irrelevant or, occasionally, empowered out of existence, new groups will continue to spring up in new forms and with new causes, ensuring that terrorism overall will always be with us and, indeed, strengthening with each successive generation.

The frequency of terrorist attacks, particularly at the most outrageous end, over the last 40 years would suggest that terrorism itself, despite the destruction of most of the people practising it amongst the mayhem they cause, has indeed proved at least as antifragile as restaurants. So, in the same way that we are all getting fed better, more and more people and resources are also being sucked into a battle which looks set to continue escalating. Because the nature of terrorism is, like the availability of pizza in your neighbourhood, that it benefits from adversity.

This suggests to me:

a. that we should rethink the constant upping of security measures against a threat which is only strengthened by them; and
b. that you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

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There has been much discussion over the past few months over whether high levels of debt cause low growth (the “austerian” camp, eg Britain, Canada and Germany within the G7) or whether instead low growth causes high levels of debt to accumulate (the “Keynesian” camp, to which Japan appears to be providing leadership currently). There has been relatively little discussion about the possibility that neither is the case.

We are compulsive pattern spotters. That explains to a large extent our dominance as a species, and completely explains the dominant position that mathematics and its applications holds in our culture.

I was reminded most stirringly of this a few years ago, on a lunch break. The Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was hosting an exhibition by Japanese sound artist Yukio Fujimoto called The Tower of Time. However, instead of siting it at their gallery space in Brindley Place, it had instead been staged at Perrott’s Folly, just around the corner from my office at the time.

Yukio Fujimoto. The Tower of Time
Installation view – Perrott’s Folly, Birmingham, UK 2009  Photo: Stuart Whipps

Perrott’s Folly was built in 1758 by John Perrott. It is a building 94 feet high, with one room on each of its six octagonal floors, and no obvious purpose (hence “folly”). It may have been somewhere to spy on his wife from, while she was alive or dead, or it may have been a gambling den for him and his mates. Or it may have been something else entirely. I think we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

After a brief introduction on the ground floor, I climbed the stairs to the first floor to find one little black square alarm clock with a red second hand ticking in the middle of the wooden floor. The next floor had ten such clocks, in a row. The next 100, in a square, the fifth floor had 1,000.

A curious thing happened to me as I moved up the tower. The clocks’ mechanisms appeared to alter with altitude. I put it that way as an example of an obviously false causality, ie that the height above sea level in some way affected how the clocks worked (and before I get complaints, I mean effects that could be detected within a matter of a few tens of feet and with no measuring equipment other than my eyes and ears). Because what I saw did change. I looked at one clock and I could see that the battery was powering the gear mechanism that kept the second hand, minute hand and hour hand in their required relative motion. I looked at ten clocks in a row and I could see the same, although I also noticed the second hands were not all at the same point along the row and that there was an order in which each piece of red plastic reached the top before beginning the next circuit. I found myself having to watch the clocks for several minutes to see the pattern confirmed. But was this “pattern” anything which had any meaning, or was it just a way for my brain to store the images it was collecting in an easily fileable format?

When I moved to 100 clocks, the relevance of the gear mechanism became secondary. I could “see” lines of second hands moving together in the way that lines of plants in a cornfield move with the breeze. This, combined with the swooshing of 100 clocks (as the ticking of each individual clock combined to make a different noise – this change in sound was I believe the artist’s main reason for constructing the installation in the first place), made me need to check several times that one of the strange pointed windows in the tower had not been opened and let in a stray breeze. At 1,000 clocks it was just pure cornfield, the individual clocks now as hard to imagine as it had been to imagine anything else four floors below.

I can “see” that the “wind” is blowing a pattern through the second hands of the clocks and yet I “know” that this is not happening. Now transfer that wind I can see to a situation where I do not readily have a theory for what is happening to individual elements within a system. Suddenly what anyone with eyes can see becomes so much more powerful than what we might know. Returning to the austerity debate for instance, perhaps the individual growth clocks have no relationship with the patterns of debt I can see being blown through them. Perhaps if I just arranged the clocks differently I would see the wind blowing from a different direction. Perhaps the clocks and the wind have nothing to do with each other outside my head, despite the “evidence” of my eyes.

Why does it matter? Because if we cannot prevent ourselves from seeing patterns and then extending them via models where we have to make some things depend on other things, even in the face of weak and conflicting evidence, then we need to know this about ourselves. Because if giving a person the wrong map is worse than not giving him one at all, our natural instinct to construct these maps is likely to keep getting us into trouble.

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