Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Banking through the years

I wonder if I could quantify the percentage of my adult life that I have spent inside Mexican banks. As nationwide institutions, Mexican banks fill the role that the post office and Internet play in bill payments in the USA. A tremendous array of services can be paid at banks. Even payments between private parties are made at banks since anyone can deposit to anyone else’s bank account — the deposit slip becomes the proof of payment.

When I started doing business in Mexico 40 years ago it was close to being a strictly a cash economy. Bank hours were short and lines were long. With banks only open from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays, employers had to pay their workers’ salary in cash or give them time off to cash their payroll checks. Those of us with a lot of banking to do had messengers we’d send to the bank ahead of time to stand in line. Upon getting to the head of the line my messenger would stay there and let people by one-by-one until I arrived. Then, exchanging only a nod, he would step out of line and I would take his place.

Back then every bank exchanged U.S. dollars at the same rate. Longtime foreign residents in Mexico remember well the 12.5 multiplication table. Banks would buy dollars at 12.49 pesos per dollar and sell them at 12.51 and we got good at the math. It had been that way since 1954. We could have peso accounts as well as dollar accounts in Mexican banks. With a dollar account we could cash a check and have the teller hand us U.S. dollar bills. Nice and straightforward.

That was also when a bank employee would manually enter each check or deposit on a card with a carbon copy attached to it. At the end of the month the copy became the monthly statement. Tellers would check the card before cashing a check. In our own branch office we could ask to see the card to check our balance.

Branch managers had to authorize cashing an out-of-town check. I remember listening to a bank officer in Mérida describing over the phone to her colleague in Cuernavaca what my signature looked like. On the island of Cozumel trying to cash some travelers’ checks I was told the manager was out. I asked his secretary when he would be back. She glanced out the window and said “in about half an hour.” I looked out the window expecting to see a coffee shop but instead saw a sidewalk barber shop in the shade of a big tree. I walked across the street, greeted the man seated with a sheet draped over his shoulders, and asked him if he was the bank manager. He replied affirmatively and I presented him my travelers’ checks to approve. In a few minutes I had cash in hand and was on my way.

The late 1970s and 1980s were boom years for anyone with a foreign source of income. During some of those years inflation ran at over 150 percent and the exchange rate soared even faster. The central bank couldn’t keep the country stocked with currency.

Store cashiers would give change in chewing gum or candy when they ran out of coins. I remember being in line in banks and hearing the head teller shout out “Who’s here to make a deposit?” Those with deposits were waved to the front of the line so the bank tellers would have cash with which to work.

By the 1980s Mexico was printing one-hundred-thousand peso bills. President de la Madrid (1982-88) was credited with having made everyone a millionaire! President Salinas (1988-94) carried out the transition from the “Peso” to the “New Peso” (designated as “N$”) with three fewer zeros and finally back to the “Peso” we know and use today.

Computers have taken some of the fun out of banking. There’s no more need to describe a signature. Last month a teller in training had her computer screen turned so that I could see it. Not only is my signature clearly visible to every teller and bank officer in that banking network throughout the country, a scanned copy of my identification card was on the screen too.

Lines can be long at times but those bankers-hours of the 1970s have been extended. I know of three banks open long hours that only close on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Account holders frequently get bankcards that give them access to special lines that move very quickly.

One thing that has gotten worse is that it is now very difficult to exchange foreign currency in banks. Visitors from abroad need to change money at the airport or use exchange houses (casas de cambio). An even better option is to use ATMs to withdraw Mexican pesos. I’ve found that ATMs also give you the best exchange rate.

Travelers checks? I haven’t seen one in years.

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