Bank On It
Money worries top the list of public fears concerning Y2K. Are those fears misplaced?
Thursday, March 4, 1999
Topping the long list of public fears concerning the havoc "certain" to be wreaked by the Y2K bug when the world clock strikes the first celestial bong of the new millennium is, not surprisingly, money.
What if the ATM machines shut down, and you can''t get cash? What if the banks lose all customer records, and no one knows how much money you have in your account? What if the stock market crashes? What if your credit card won''t work, or--worse--what if it suddenly springs into uncontrollable action, registering spurious purchases for which you''ll then be liable?
A recent Scripps Howard poll in Texas showed that more people are worried about ATM machines and banks failing than about nationwide power outages or even planes falling out of the sky.
But experts watching and planning for the Y2K computer problem, both inside and outside the government, agree that the banking industry is, across the board, better prepared than just about any other sector, public or private. That''s largely because the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and other national regulatory agencies have required every bank in the country to develop in-house Y2K testing procedures and back-up plans.
Prudential Securities, one of the nation''s largest investment firms, has been working for more than seven years to ensure its computers and embedded systems are Y2K compliant, according to Larry Wachtel, a market analyst at the company''s New York headquarters.
Wachtel remembers a sign that was posted in Prudential''s lobby four years ago, offering a $2,500 bounty to anyone who could bring in an expert on COBOL, an early programming language in effect when the Y2K glitch was created.
"There''s an extremist view, and a moderate view, where the extremists are running around saying the world is coming to an end, and putting all the Kellogg''s Corn Flakes in their cellars," Wachtel says. "Can I say la-de-da, nothing will happen? Of course not. But the big companies and banks will be compliant by Dec. 31. The smaller ones may not be--that includes foreign banks and companies, and the Mom-and-Pop businesses."
In California, banks are regulated both by the FDIC and the state. "They set the policies and procedures we have to follow," says Andre Herrera, vice president of Monterey County Bank, a local bank with branches in Carmel, Monterey and Pacific Grove. Those policies and procedures include mandatory planning for the year 2000, including orders for every FDIC-regulated bank to create its own in-house Y2K team.
Monterey County Bank formed its Y2K planning team in late 1995, Herrera says. All of the bank''s internal hardware was tested, and all non-Y2K compliant PCs were replaced by the end of 1998. The bank has also designed and carried out sample transactions, both with its outside vendors and internally, to make sure that all computer systems will function when the clock moves forward to 2000.
"On our main system, which handles all our loans, savings, and checking programs, we duplicated the hardware and customer data base to form a testing environment, then we moved the dates forward into the year 2000," he says. But potential problems loom beyond Jan. 1, he says. 2000 is also a leap year, 9/9/99 presents its own set of pitfalls, and so on. "We''re making sure that interest will accrue correctly on loans and CDs," he says.
Monterey County Bank has completed its tests, and is now validating the results. "So far, everything is looking good," Herrera states with confidence.
But unexpected problems can crop up, so most banks are drawing up detailed contingency plans, as well. "We don''t believe PG&E won''t be able to provide electricity, but we have plans in place just in case that happens," Herrera says. "We might have to post deposits manually, and we''ll be ready. Even in a disaster scenario, we''ll be up and running."
As long as your money is in an FDIC-insured bank, it''s protected up to the federal limit of $100,000. If you have more than that in any one bank, some experts say, you might consider spreading it around. Herrera knows of one customer of his bank who split his sizable account into smaller accounts, each within the $100,000 limit, and put each account in a separate bank.
No matter how vociferously banks assure their customers that everything will work just fine on Jan. 1, the financial powers-that-be are still preparing for public panic. The Federal Reserve has announced it will set aside an extra $50 billion in cash reserves for the end of 1999, in anticipation of a consumer run on the banks. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress last week that his greatest fear is "everyone running around with $5,000 in their pockets" and getting robbed.
"There will probably be people who sell out of everything and hide their cash under their mattresses, but we''re not seeing that yet," says Steve Tipping, vice president of the New Jersey-based Condor Capital investment firm.
Herrera says he "does not recommend" that bank customers withdraw extra cash at the end of December, just in case the ATM machines don''t work at the beginning of the year. Pointing out that Jan. 1 falls on a Saturday, he says that most folks take out a little more cash before a weekend anyway. "Don''t take out any more cash than you would for a holiday weekend," he counsels.
But it''s a good idea to keep written records of all your bank transactions, including your latest bank statement, as the year''s end approaches. "Keep your most recent 1999 statement somewhere accessible and fireproof," suggests Cheryl Duffus, vice president of marketing at First National Bank of the Central Coast. "In case of computer failures, you could walk into your bank and know exactly what you have."
Another financial concern is the stock market. Some savvy--or panicked--investors are already trying to outguess the possible effects of any Y2K-induced market crash. The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed high-rolling investors who were moving significant portions of their investment portfolios out of the market and into gold and other precious metals.
It''s no coincidence, the Journal article points out, that the U.S. Mint, which manufactures the nation''s gold, silver and platinum bullion coins, had a record year in 1998. The mint sold more than 1.8 million ounces of gold, and had to temporarily stop minting its one-ounce silver coins because unusually high consumer demand had outstripped its supply of blank coins.
Wachtel says that he hasn''t seen Prudential Securities investors express any greater interest in gold or precious metals. Herrera reports the same non-action at Monterey County Bank.
But that may change as we get closer to the magic date, and public fears increase and feed off each other. Steve Tipping says that while he''s confident the nation''s banking system will hold up under the strain of the changing century, "there will be more problems caused by people''s irrational fears than anything else."
Jeff Buhl, founder and president of Y2K Investments in Atlanta, Ga., agrees. "From an investment standpoint, what often drives markets is not reality, but people''s perceptions of what will happen," he says.
As public fears of a world financial collapse continue to grow, he says smart investors with steely nerves "could make a killing" if they correctly identify companies that are now "sailing smooth" but that may drop off sharply as the century turns.
"The way to make money in a failing market is through investment pools, in such things as stock options," he suggests. "Futures and short-sellings, too, although these are more risky, in my opinion. Bet against the market. We believe the stock market will be plenty of points down, below 5000."
And buying gold and other precious metals "is not a bad option," he adds. "I''m even suggesting it to my Mom." cw