Some straight talk in an industry where it's rare

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The Independent Online

The new Aviva chairman John McFarlane cut through the nonsense that generally surrounds big insurance companies yesterday, not least by being willing to admit that he finds some of what they say and do entirely baffling. There are, roughly speaking, on a risk-adjusted actuarial basis, six people in Britain who truly understand insurance company financial reports. To his credit, Mr McFarlane doesn't claim to be one of them and is experienced and brave enough to suggest that this may be the fault of the writers rather than the readers.

He is very far from stupid, so if what the company has been traditionally telling the markets and shareholders and customers is hard to follow, surely that's Aviva's failing, he seemed to be saying.

Mr McFarlane is presently running the business until a long-term replacement can be found for Andrew Moss. Mr Moss was an insurance chief executive who sounded like a banker.

Things that were in his favour – his pay – were mostly straightforward. Other things – such as the collapsing share price – well, that required nuance. Mr McFarlane, a banker who does a close impersonation of a human, suggests he will have none of this. If executives are rewarded, shareholders must have been too.

He said Aviva's statements to the stock market have often been "cumbersome", "difficult to understand" and "confusing".

"We issue a telephone book of numbers," he told me. "I can't follow them."

This is refreshing talk for so many reasons, one of which is that it confirms long-standing suspicions that at least some of the financial world conspires to make things seem complex purely to justify the high pay of the inhabitants.

If you are going to insist on not dying young, say surveys endlessly released by Aviva and others, expect your pension to be titchy. Don't worry so much, we'll all be richer in the future, is a message they do not give.

To revive Aviva (in more sensible times before it sounded like a brand of anti-dandruff shampoo, it was known as Norwich Union) is a massive job.

Mr McFarlane said he doesn't want that position himself: he will shape up and strip down the business, then find the man who can do it.

Since insurers are genuinely complex affairs, however straightforward the chairman may seek to make this one, it should be someone who understands the company intimately.

That just has to be someone who already works there. Headhunters Spencer Stuart should call off the "global search", cut short their own fees, and recommend an internal appointment.

These nearly always work best in the end, in any industry.