From pinstripes to poverty: a refugee banker’s first 100 days at Oxfam

January 25, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam is always keen to employ unusual suspects, none more so than Will Martindale, a banker turned “do gooder” (right, and no, that isn’t his Oxfam desk). Here willtradinghe reflects on his first 100 days working among the (supposed) angels.

Banking. Most hate it. Few understand it. And I miss it.

I miss the pace, the energy, and the super smart people fluent in numerous languages. I miss the neon ties, the pinstripe suits and the sales guys with shiny shoes. I miss the IT geeks with their dozen monitors and knee-high coffee flasks. I miss the chic hotels, the business-class flights and French restaurants.

But I left – and was looking to move for a while – because underneath all the flash, my work had absolutely zero social worth. I worked in the more exotic side of credit default swap trading: a financial product far removed from the real economy.

So 100 days ago I joined Oxfam, eight years after I started JPMorgan’s graduate scheme, and I’m excited to have made the change.

At first “NGO-speak” was a babble of acronyms, the array of recycling bins brought on a mild sweat, and I can confirm that hot-desking is not cool. But there are super smart people fluent in numerous languages at Oxfam too. There is energy, but of a different sort; less pace but more space – to think, to challenge. There is an excitement that our work – my work – is changing people’s lives for the better. And contrary to my preconceptions, Oxfam is agile, radical and fundamentally progressive.

So the transition has been stark, but I survived, not least because I find my role fascinating.

With my colleague, former City-boy Rob Nash (ex Lehman Brothers), our objective is this: to create the space for progressive bankers to make financial stability, transparency, financial inclusion, a return to real economy banking and socially productive investment the norm, not the exception. And to sideline tax evasion, disproportionate remuneration, unsustainable leverage, high volatility and endemic price rigging.

This is a challenge. On the surface, the all male, all macho City stereotype prevails. A Christmas party involved a London treasure hunt in taxi cabs. A quiet day in the markets turned into a Krispy Kreme doughnut eating competition. A colleague’s mistake prompted a manager to send an email in size 100 font with the letters: “WTF”. And being a “tree-hugging banker” (as I was named), a trader thought it would be funny to slowly and methodically pour spaghetti bolognese into the paper-only recycling bin opposite my desk.

Eat_The_BankersYet, as with most sectors, dig a little deeper and you’ll find thousands of influential and hard-working bankers who care deeply about good banking and – like Oxfam – want a pro-poor financial sector that is inclusive, sustainable and responsible.

Both internally and externally, many ask why this is relevant to Oxfam.

On the negative, predatory land investments in the world’s poorest countries have made thousands of people homeless and hungry; commodity speculation has driven volatile food prices; the City finances arms companies and corrupt mining companies; and facilitates tax avoidance that starves poor countries of much needed tax receipts.

On the positive, there’s more low carbon and climate financing; new technologies make funds available to poor people in remote rural areas; and bridging loans provide upfront funding needed for humanitarian disasters. And in my short time at Oxfam, I have met many financiers who are focusing their efforts and expertise in innovative products and business models designed to meet the most urgent social and environmental challenges of our time.

The financial services are central to this. But arguably, there is the subtle but more important concept of financial stability. I remember a senior trader once told me that “as long as you don’t mess with people’s lives, finance is ok”.

But even the far removed credit default swap market messes with people lives. Credit default swaps replicate the risk of trading bonds, but whereas bonds are paid for upfront, sellers of credit default swaps pay in arrears. And as we found out, nobody had the money to pay. As the markets tanked, more payments were triggered needing yet more scarce cash, so the markets tanked some more. And thus began a credit crunch which affected everyone, particularly poor people.

Take the LIBOR scandal. LIBOR is the benchmark interest rate for pretty much every floating rate trade that exists. So when it was kept artificially high, interest rate payers paid too much, including poor countries servicing debt payments.

Finance is everywhere. Banks, central banks, international finance institutions and governments are a public private hybrid, controlling national wealth, capital allocation and redistribution (or not).

We believe 2013 presents a unique opportunity to place Oxfam’s voice at the heart of financial reform as the City rebuilds its business and reputation in the wake of the credit crunch and the ongoing Eurozone crisis.

As you read this, the World Economic Forum is being held in Davos. As ever, the titans of global finance will be prominent in the corridors of Swiss resorts, trading ideas over cocktails and canapés. It is a good day to reflect on what positive engagement with the City might look like. As with Oxfam’s first foray into the sector, the policy document “Better Returns in a Better World”, we are looking to divide the City; to challenge the status quo and to identify, support and encourage progressive, sustainable and pro-poor financial services.

The detail is still to be decided. Here are some of our ideas:

  • We feel it’s necessary to start with a map. Who does what where in the City, and more importantly, how and why?
  • We will pioneer public “City” workshops to move beyond a bank’s CSR department and reach an audience of finance experts with anuntapped interest in development. We want better banking, not token hand-outs: “we financed a biofuels project which displacedbarclays 1000s of people, but not to worry, we built a health clinic in the neighbouring village.”
  • We will ask banks and other investors to share their research and provide access to their trading and operation desks. And in the same way that Oxfam hosts trips for policy makers to visit our programmes, we will extend such invitations to those with influence in the financial sector.
  • With a greater understanding of the City’s power-base and having built a wider network of City professionals, we will root our work in Oxfam’s priority campaigns; on land, food, tax and climate change. We will publish a series of “investor briefings” in a language and style consistent with the City: more graphs, fewer words.
  • Finally, through active campaigning we will hold financial organisations to account; exposing and challenging harmful practices and supporting and encouraging policies with clear and demonstrable development impacts. We seek to end the business-as-usual approach which disproportionately hurts the world’s poorest and contribute to the rise of sustainable and responsible investment as the new mainstream of financial markets.

But to what extent should Oxfam work with the City? Is a pro-poor financial sector a distant dream? What’s your experience of bankers and banking? How can we measure progress? And which issues should Oxfam – a global aid and development charity with a mission to end poverty and suffering – prioritise within the City?

My colleague Rob Nash and I would welcome your suggestions, comments and concerns as we engage with this complex and powerful sector.