Wednesday, February 27, 2008

International banking on a small scale

  "Due to global compliance payroll reporting we have made the decision to deliver all assignee remuneration shown on your balance sheet via your home country payroll.  However, we are pleased to introduce Reimbursement for Exchange Rate Loss.  This will be effective May 2008. We understand this is a big change and a member of the Global Assignments Team will be scheduling a meeting with you over the next few weeks to discuss the new process."

This is the sort of email that is guaranteed to take hours off my days and weeks off my life.

On the one hand, I serve at the pleasure of the corporation, so there's no sense in stressing over it. On the other, anything involving global banks and international money transfers these days is full or problems and procedures.Nov 2 2007 033

Prior to this note, my wages were divided and deposited into a US account for my family and a Dutch account for my living expenses.  With this announcement, it will all go to the US. So, the only way that I will have cash for living expenses is to wire a sizeable chunk of money over here every month, and then to apply for reimbursement of fees and exchange rate differentials, every month.

Welcome to the big leagues, as we say in the US...

I've got Dutch -> US transfers down to an art: the money arrives in a week and only one transmission has been lost in the past year.  In that case, the deposit was re-credited, but the merchant bank took off a $75 fee for it's trouble in returning my money to me.  Still, it's become a routine, five-keystroke operation (thank you Fortis).

On the US side, I use Washington Mutual, as in "Whoo hoo: WaMu".  That should be a hint: WaMu is a large bank ("$15 billion market cap; 2225 branches") but not a global one ("our friendly employees, our innovative approach to banking, or our work in our communities makes us unique").  This has big implications, as I found out in two hours of phone conversations last night.

First, they don't do currency exchanges.  They tell me that there are airport vendors and travel agencies for that sort of thing.

Second, despite their assurance that my account features ! Free * Unlimited * WorldWide * Wire * Transfers !, these cannot be done on-line.  Or by telephone.  The two options are (and I am not making this up):

   1-- Go in-person to the bank manager of my home branch and fill out a longhand paper form each time I want to make a transfer, or

   2-- Withdraw the cash and take it up the street to Western Union, please.

So everything must be dollar-denominated, and handled at the local-branch level as a personal transaction.  I tried getting in touch with my branch manager to explain that I live in The Netherlands (no, sorry: Holland), and to see if I could deposit a letter of authorization between us, agreeing to set up a recurring transfer.  However, the conversation faltered when the +31 part of my phone number led to a long discussion of how to make direct-dial international calls.  I haven't heard from him since.

This doesn't inspire confidence.

I'm not sure what my solution will be: options include parking a large chunk of cash here (at 0.01% Dutch interest rates), working with a different bank (and re-doing my direct deposit arrangements), transferring through a brokerage like Schwab (who will accept instructions by fax, but not on-line or by phone), or to make monthly flights to the US to withdraw a bag of money (but under the $5000 limit at Customs).

As a regular reader of the Economist, I am well aware of the ceaseless flows of billions of dollars chasing opportunities around the globe, and of the wave of government monitoring and regulation that is trying to catch up with it.  Maybe.  But, at the local level of transferring a thousand dollars over international boundaries, the US system (and my home accounts) still has a long way to go.

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