Monday, December 8, 2008

Where is George Bailey when you need him?

While my list of mobile industry topics I'd like to cover grows, the impact of the economic crisis and bank-related issues continue to take center stage in my mind for now. And for some reason, my banking experience during the past few days brought to mind that classic American Christmas tear-jerker, It's a Wonderful Life. For those of you who haven't seen this movie, here is the Wikipedia entry about it. It is a must-see in America during the holidays, with at least one cable channel using running a 24-hour marathon. Despite being released over 60 years ago, the situation in the clip below will be eerily familiar to today's Ukrainians:

These days I can relate to the depositers in this clip who stormed the Bailey Brothers' Building & Loan looking to withdrawal their savings. That's exactly what I went to do, as well as change it from hryvnia into dollars. This not so much anymore because I fear my bank will close its doors, but mainly due to the risk that the currency with further devalue.

Although in the end I completed my transaction, it took me 7 visits to 3 different bank branches over 3 days to do it. Actually, by Ukrainian banking standards that's not too bad, especially considering most bank employees were friendly, efficient and, of course, actually allowed me to do what I needed to do. Below are the main highlights of my experience:

Day 1:

  • Branch #1: I'm told that there is a limit on the amount of dollars I can buy each day from a given branch. At the same time, I'm informed that I could repeat the transaction at an unlimited number of branches per day. Don't ask me what sense that makes. After completing my withdrawal and dollar purchase at Branch #1, I casually ask if I could also buy euros, even if I'd max'ed out my dollar limit. The answer is "yes". Again, don't ask me why. Result: 13% complete.
  • Branch #2: After a 20-minute walk to the next branch on a bitterly cold day , I'm told there that my limit for buying dollars per day is not X, but 3X. Good news, but they couldn't explain to me why Branch #1 told me X. Result: another 13% complete
  • Result for the day: about 25% completed

Day 2

  • Branch #3: I remembered that a new branch opened up near my apartment, so I thought I'd save some time and make a withdrawal there. The quite snitty and self-confident bank teller there informs me that it is illegal for the bank to sell foreigners like myself currency. When I explain that two other branches sold me currency yesterday, she simply shrugs, indignantly said her memo informed her that is impossible, and shows no interest in looking into the matter. After many run-ins with these types of people over the years, I've learned not to waste my time on them. So I quickly tell her she is wrong and set off for the better informed branches. Result: 0% completed, 30 minutes of my time wasted, and my patience lost
  • Branch #2, Visit #2: The same teller I spoke with on Day 1 tells me that she got yelled at for selling me currency over the X limit. She doesn't have any dollars to sell, but tells me to come back near the end of the day and she'll probably have some. Result: 0% completed, 1 hour of my time wasted
  • Branch #1, Visit #2: I play dumb and tell the teller I'd like to withdrawal hryvnia and buy dollars. "How much," she asks? "As much as I can," I reply. I learn for the first time that there is a daily limit on hryvnia withdrawals. If converted to dollars, this limit is almost 7X the original dollar limit I was told. After checking with her colleague, the teller tells me I can buy 4X dollars and 2X in euros. Again, good news but why didn't any of the other tellers do this? For some reason, this transaction involved additional paperwork to be completed, but after about 45 minutes standing at the window, I had my money. Result: another 50% completed
  • Result for the day: another 50% completed, but half my morning wasted to get it done

Day 3

  • Branch #1, Visit #3: No messing around this time, back to Branch #1. This time all goes smoothly. My remaining balance is withdrawn, dollars purchased (3X the original limt I was told on Day 1), streamlined paperwork process (for some reason).
  • Result for the day: mission accomplished
What would George Bailey think about this experience? He'd probably say that I should be grateful to get my money at all.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of Ukrainians believe that their banks are run by a bunch of Potters, even in the best of times. Given their experiences to date, whether the result of bank policy, government regulation, or incompetence, you can't blame them. My first inclination is to be suspicious of banks, which makes me ultra-sensitive to the inconvenience and inconsistency of information that I had to go through, especially because I think this type of thing would happen even without a crisis.

I can't say that George Bailey would have convinced me to leave my money in his bank if it had a Ukraine address. But then again, George Bailey probably would either have lost his bank to some oligarch or government official, or become one himself by now.