The terror of league tables


Unless you are top of the league (and having a laugh), looking at a league table with you or your team in it, can be a scary team. Friday afternoon is when First Actuarial publish their Monkey League and though I am a mid-table veteran, I always get the wobbles as I click to find how many monkeys I have beaten and how I rank against former colleagues and current friends (many being both).

We are both fascinated and terrorized by performance tables , as they never lie. The old adage that “it’s the points that count” is at its truest when you look how close your team is to promotion or relegation. Who cares that Yeovil’s scrappy 1-0 win away to Dagenham was achieved in the last minute, the Glovers are now closer to the top than bottom of the National Conference. No matter that we are four leagues below our high water mark but 7 years back, the league we are in is a league of its own – it is what matters – to those who remain Yeovil True.

League tables for pensions?

While fans, managers and clubs live and die for tables, people in pensions seem strangely averse to them. While we are happy to accept that our club’s form is none of our doing, we take pride or pain as we reflect on our side’s position in the table, it is our relative performance in points that determine our attitude to the team .  We may feel we deserve better or worse, but the table is what counts

These observations should also apply to our pensions. Trustees and consultants agonize about the minutiae of investment strategy for our money, but when it comes to letting us know the results of their decisions , we get at best a factsheet and at worst a bland assurance that our pension is giving us value for money.

If we ask what value for money means, we are referred to a framework and told that we have done well relative to the expectations of those who put the framework in place. Alternatively we are told that we should have an expectation of value for our money based on some carefully picked performance measure such as CPI+3. this at least can be compared with other people measuring against CPI + 3, but who are they – and where’s the table?

For all the talk of wanting to get people engaged in pensions , we don’t give people the one thing that people universally get interested, how they’ve done compared to other people. Don’t ask me why people crave this information , I just know it to be true!

Why are we terrified of league tables?

I think the answer lies in one word “accountability”. We are terrified of being exposed for not doing what we say we do. While everybody can believe they are giving value for other people’s money, we can’t all be right, some must give more than others, there must be pension providers at the top and bottom of the table and a lot who sit in the middle and are ordinary.

The points system devised for most sporting tables is based on results but is biased to elicit certain behaviours. 3 point for a win , 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a loss encourages teams to attack and not play for a draw, bonus points for tries encourages rugby teams not to ease off till the 80th minute and deductions for financial irregularities encourage good governance.

As well as engaging us, league tables encourage good behaviour ensuring entertaining sport and teams that don’t cheat.

We are terrified by tables as they don’t lie and we do. We lie to ourselves and once we’ve done it often enough we end up lying to others , believing our own lies. But there is a little place in the back of our head called conscience which makes us guilty that we might be found out. Conscience makes cowards of us all.

So we suppress tables, preferring to work to our own internal benchmarks or publish benchmarks that no-one else uses or even understands.

And then we ask why no-one reads our value for money statements.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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2 Responses to The terror of league tables

  1. George Kirrin says:

    I think you’re having a better Monkey League this season, Henry!

    A Top Four (Champions League) spot in the last table I saw ….

    Hope I haven’t jinxed you for the final run-in.

  2. henry tapper says:

    Sadly no update so far this week George, that’s another thing about league tables – you come to depend on them! Sustaining interest is no easy thing to do! Well done First Actuarial for keeping us engaged over the years.

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