Photo by Mark Eder on Unsplash

Great Things Happen in Grey Zones.

Jacob Malthouse
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read

Paul shifted his focus towards the friendly fire. In his words he was the umbrella and would protect us from all of the shit raining down. This is a thankless job. Your work becomes battling off an inquisition. It is meetings, emails, sudden phone calls and trips to Paris. I could see Paul’s energy and enthusiasm being replaced with a worn look. We were getting into the reality of doing something innovative in an institution known for nothing of the sort.

The accounting man in our unit was a Russian named Michael Evteev. He wore a black suit and smoked Marlboro Reds in his office. He kept a bottle of vodka in the unit fridge. Michael had to sign off on all financial transactions in our unit. He really liked technology, especially his Palm Pilot, which he spent hours using.

Someone with a basic understanding of technology back then was seen to have special powers. The UN was still heavily reliant on fax machines. I became close to Guillaume, a Frenchman from Normandy with a passion for servers and death metal. His band was called Stumpfucker. Guillaume and I got on Michael’s good side by helping him with any technology issues that arose. Generally, UNEP FI tried to avoid running any funds through the UN. It seemed best to stay on the good side of your Russian accountant.

We were able to get and keep people in Switzerland — without going through Mr. Evteev — using the United Nations “Carte de Legitimation”. Literally a legitimacy card.This is basically an ID card that I suspect exists only in Geneva. What you do is go to the UN Offices in Geneva (UNOG). Not the fancy palace. It is a three story French styled residence in the grounds, partially hidden by trees. It looks like a gardener’s cottage.

The house is populated by UNOG Security. These were mostly African men in their thirties. They could give a shit about a twenty something white kid in a shirt and tie. You walked in, showed a letter on letterhead from your unit saying you were either a consultant or an intern. They took your picture, made you a card, and you left. That card was the key. You could then rent an apartment, get a bank account, and were generally ignored by Swiss police and customs. We all knew that our pay and ID could be yanked at any time. Life was perpetually insecure. We inhabited a grey area between the official and unofficial. Great things happen in grey areas.

We took full advantage of the UN brand. No one knew we were a bunch of young people inhabiting a strange grey zone made possible by bank funding and UN diplomatic privileges. We knew time was going to be short. I began to collar our working group members for their analyst contacts.

It took a lot of cajoling. While everyone was happy to sign-off on Carlos’ plan in principle, turning over your rolodex was something else. The working group members were going to be outed as treehuggers to mainstream research analysts. It was quite possible they’d be treated like clowns. After all, when your job is assessing stock price based on financial criteria, what are you doing pairing up with the UN and asking for a free report on “extra-financial criteria”? It was getting real.

I managed to get contacts at fifty brokerage houses. My desk began to look like a feral pig pen. Letters had to be triple checked. We sent them by email and by actual mail to make them look more official. My colleague Niamh O’Sullivan, a tiny Irish woman from Cork, made no bones about the state of my office. This was before lasers had castrated mice, so I responded by repeatedly stealing her mouse ball. Most of my follow up calls were ignored.

Slowly, however, we began to get some traction. If someone answered, I’d given them my best pitch. The UN was fully behind this initiative. There would be a lot of free PR. There’s no need to do anything too fancy. Just take a sector and approach it qualitatively. It’s fine if you don’t find any connections. You don’t need to make the link between the share price and extra-financial criteria. Just identify some risks, pose some questions. Play around with some ideas.

If I caught a fish, I’d circle back to the group member who shared the contact and let them know. Together, we would try to pull them over the line. We eventually got eleven people to commit. Thankfully we got people in Japan and Africa, so it wasn’t a complete European write-off. I tried hard, but not a single American firm would give me the time of day.

It didn’t matter. We had caught a whopper. Sometimes, your UN bluff would pay off.

It didn’t matter. We had caught a whopper. Sometimes, your UN bluff would pay off. You’d get someone really senior. Banks are militarily hierarchical. This hierarchy exists both within the bank and between the banks. Banks are like cows. The bull is Goldman Sachs. The horns are the bosses at Goldman Sachs.

All of the banks know that Goldman recruits the best talent. So they spend a lot of their time watching Goldman Sachs. If Goldman moves, they follow. I had no idea about Goldman Sachs. I’d never even heard of them before coming to the UN. Even at UNEP FI Goldman was absent. They weren’t members, they didn’t do really anything on environmental issues. At least nothing that we could see. Morley Fund Management out of the UK had given me Anthony Ling’s contacts. Anthony Ling was the Co-director of Research at Goldman Sachs Europe. He called me.

“Hey it’s Anthony Ling. We got a letter from the UN”. Okay, I said. Not recalling who this guy was or where he was calling from. We’d like to contribute a report on the Oil and Gas sector. We didn’t have a report on the Oil and Gas sector. Yes! That would be great. I’ll put you in touch with Sarah Forrest, who will be leading the work. That got me interested.

Most of the analysts we had been working with were basically doing this off the side of their desks. I pictured them working away late at night, at home. Some had a few people working as a team on the reports, but for others, it was just something they thought made sense. A few analysts later told me that they felt they weren’t able to give the whole picture to their clients. The UN letter was a chance for them to think outside the box. So the opportunity was welcome, but the resources weren’t really there.

Anthony didn’t need to ask people for resources. He was the resource guy. I don’t know why Anthony flipped. But he did. And he did it with intention. He put a team of people on the project. I like to think that maybe Anthony saw something in the wind. The European Union had launched an emissions trading scheme. Maybe he felt the ground was shifting. Oil and gas is not a short term business. Some projects take decades to develop. It is inherently political. I came to see how Goldman’s approach differed from its competitors. Goldman’s got politics.

For most banks, finance is like soccer. You get out on the field, you play hard, you win. Your tactics, training, and effort is focused on how to win the game. Goldman Sachs was looking at how to influence the rules of the game. They were playing, sure. But they were also watching FIFA. They were looking at the referees, the evolution of the rules, the sponsors, the fans, at the landscape of the sport. It made sense that they would want to monetize that expertise. Extra-financial criteria was their competitive advantage.

Sarah Forrest was one of many astoundingly talented women that worked on this project. She was doing her PhD, her CFA — the Chartered Financial Analyst certification is a three year odyssey in which you are bludgeoned with financial economics — and working at Goldman Sachs. At the same time. We had Goldman, and Goldman had Sarah, so we had a project. Carlos and Paul were elated. Word began to spread that a group of banks and the UN were up to something.

Jacob Malthouse

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I love to explore connections between technology, society and planet.

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