Friday, December 22, 2006

Banking Secrecy (Politics Free)

Banking facilities in Lebanon are world class. But don't be fooled by the spotless sparkling floors, fancy chandeliers, impeccably dressed employees, and the priceless historic artifacts that adorn the lobby, that's all just a facade. What really keeps our banks going and pumping money into all the patriotic feel good ad campaigns you see on TV and just before the feature presentatrion at the movies is not phoenecian financial whizzery but rather a precious little thing of ours that we call banking secrecy. Banking secrecy involves plenty of questionable business ethics; though that's a different issue for a different day because as advertised this post is politics free.

I was just someone that wanted to cash a measly little check for $90 that was rotting in my pocket when I stumbled upon Bank X, well Bank X and X to be more precise and we'll leave at that because again any extra information I provide could be interpreted as a political attack and I wouldn't do that. So I approach one of the six idle tellers, being the only customer in the place I had my choice; so I chose the experienced looking one against my male instincts of heading towards the cute one who seemed too entrenched in gossip to be bothered. Anywhere else in the world, you usually find a long line of customers waiting for an overworked teller to be free to process your transaction. You estimate that your bank visit will take about 20 minutes, 15 in line and 5 for the transaction. So with the tellers outnumbering the customers, me, 6 to 1; and having the simple transaction of cashing a $90 check I assumed I'd be out in 5 minutes max. Well, I was wrong. I was fooled by the flat screens and the marble counter. The fun had just commenced ...

The Teller, who will be now known as #1 for tracking purposes, took a look at the check, punched a few keys on her computer, filled up a form by hand, and printed another form which she stable to the rest of the paperwork. #1 stands up and walks over to #2, a middle aged man who was just bragging how he completed the Medium Level of Spider Solitaire sucessfully. #2 takes a look at all papers nods and signs and directs her towards #3, a higher up with an individual glass bowl office. Meanwhile #4, the cute teller, and #5, her bleach blond gossip partner, are getting annoyingly loud and were shushed by #6, the office dork who takes his paper shuffling job seriously. #1's phone rings, it was her daughter who just got back from school, the food was ready in the fridge and just needed reheating. #1 writes down my phone number and full address on the back of the check.That was a bit of a challenge since I don't really know if the street and/or the building that I live in even have a name, "Hamra 5th floor" didn't quite cut it. #1 stood up again and went across the room to the only smart efficient being in the building, #7, the photocopy machine. #1 came back only to be intercepted by #8, a gum chewing fully made up lady, who reminded her that she needed to photocopy the back of the check too. Note that the choice of the word "lady" was also to keep this post politics-free. #7 does the job again. #1 informs me that they have to phone the issuer of the check and that it will only take a couple of minutes. #8 was in charge of the phone call, she called and asked for the owner of the company, who happened to be in a meeting. I intervened in an effort to expedite the process, you know after all I have studied productiviy at one of the Top 7 Industrial Engineering programs in the Southeast. I suggested she calls the accountant since I doubt the owner of the company is aware of a petty $90 check. #8, the lady she is, prefered talking to the boss directly.

At this point, I was a bit ... let's just say I was overwhelmed with a mixture of emotions. After 5 minutes of #8 waiting for the owner of the check's issuing company to return her urgent call, #2 noticed that I've been standing there for the duration of a few Spider Solitaire rounds and urged #8 to "help the poor man." #8 then called again and this time she did talk to the accountant.

All in all, Bank X and X spent a combined 20 manhours of work processing this $90 check, but here's the clincher: the check was NOT cashed and I was asked to deposit it in my bank account. So more people and more time are needed for processing my $90 check, well $89 since my bank discounted a $1 processing fee, you know all these people don't work for free.

So how can a financial institution with the efficiency of the Panamanian Department of Motor Vehicles strive and splurge in a deadbeat economy?

Hey, it's a secret.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the good ol' efficiency of yet another system in Lebanon...

Anonymous said...

Please tell me none of these banks is BLOM (winner of so many awards).

bodhisattva said...

lol, ian flemming must be turning in his corpsecoffin for joy

happy christmas dude. next time, ask for cash :)


and if it looks questionable, like monopoly money, just take it

Anonymous said...

reminds me when i was a teller..but the story is a bit different..our office manager was a slave driver with a sweet voice..not one customer waited..wander how she'd fair in leb...

Anonymous said...

hmm, actually there is a perfectly good explanation for this. You see there are checks that can be cashed in directly, and there are checks which have to be deposited into your account (with a clearing process that may take a couple of days).

I assume you were given a deposit only check. The bank wanting to be helpful, took extraordinary measures to try to make sure that the check is valid.

However, I do admit that banks in Lebanon are not very efficient. However, I hate to break it to you, but it certainly is not your bank account, or any retail banking account that is making Lebanese banks, world class. It isn't that stupid little teller which cashes checks that is making money for the banks. It is the the investment banking wing.

Anonymous said...


I have had so many experiences just like this one that I have lost count. And yes, most of them where at Bank XXXX!

My personal favourites... Statements of account are issued only upon request.
The account balance shown at the ATM when you withdraw cash is only the balance of your remaining withdrawal limit for the month. I love this one!

Let me explain. I changed my monthly withdrawal limit with bank XXXX to $2,000USD (most are $5,000) so as soon as I had more than $2,000USD in my account the ATM only tells me the balance of the 2,000 I can withdraw that month, not the balace of the overall account. Of course, I thought I had been robbed! It took many more minutes of explaining for me to figure it out. So once my balance is over $2,000USD the only way to find out how much cash I actually have is to get a statement........ which you have to ask for!

Chas said...

Isn't it cool, though, when a mundane activity turns into a life lesson?


Anonymous said...

You should have cashed the cheque in the Janoub country: Israel it would have taken you 5 minutes -no more!

LebExile said...

Not really, no matter where you are, you can only cash a bank check - that is one issued by a bank. other cheques such as personal checks or company cheques need to be deposited into an account - and there is usually a 3 to 5 working day delay waiting for the funds to clear.

The teller may have been a little incompetant - since she should know the difference between a bank cheque and a personal/company cheque.

but hey - thats how it is here in Australia - we dont have as much secrecy.. tsk tsk