Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Immortal Centavo and Disappearing Coins

Rewrites of Jottings: The Immortal Centavo and Disappearing Coins

Rummaging through some junk-filled boxes slated for disposal to the trash heap, my last minute scrutiny chanced upon a cache of centavo coins denominated in tens, fives and mostly ones (there were no peso coins then). The misplaced coins were overlooked and overtaken by the legal fiat declaring them non-legal tender.
I vividly recall at the time my last minute attempts to beat the deadline that would condemn the discs from their status as medium of exchange into pieces of tarnished metal, worthless even as mementos. Most of the tens and fives went with purchases, but still left a sizable number of one-sentimo pieces. Then a bright idea came to mind ─ donate to charity. The look on the beggar’s face when he saw the cause of the clanging rain of coins on his alms cup made it quite clear that the idea was not so bright.
The sentimo may no longer be legal tender nor revered for its sentimental value, but it is vibrantly alive in the books of accountants who perform daring acrobatics in balancing the books because of the pesky sentimo. They are even cluttering the computerized ledgers, eating up memory space in big bytes.
If it is no longer legal tender, where are all those sentimos coming from? One suspect culprit is the unbending rule of mathematics where a dividend or product resulting from a math operation that is less than a whole number must be expressed as a decimal. Because many money transactions end up in fractions of a peso, the tiny dot preceding the fractured whole number is inevitable. The threat of technical malversation looms large if custodians of ledgers ignore the sentimos.
The abomination can obviously be rectified by a simple change of rules. The math can be programmed to round the second figure to the right of the dot into a five or a zero whichever is closer. If the books do not balance thereafter, let the computer do the worrying.
Another amazing quality of the sentimo is its ability to materialize at unexpected moments. There was an instance when a top official of the Education Department reassured anxious parents of prospective Grade 1 pupils that when their child enrolls “they will not be charged a single centavo”. The statement turned out to be only too true ─ the parents were not charged one sentimo, it was more like 200 or 20,000 sentimos.
The technical malversation threat may also be solved in novel fashion: place all those sentimos into a special kitty whose sole purpose is to fill the discrepancies at audit time, then put the kitty in the custody of the Immigration Department who then automatically place erring treasurers on hold departure order status to head off absconding.
There are ominous omens that may not bode well for our local economy. Particularly disturbing is a strange phenomenon. In the early hours when the community is just starting to stir into the usual hustle and bustle, the supply of coins in the hands of the public transport sector is zero or its equivalent. Try paying with a paper bill to a taxi or jeepney and you create a minor crisis.
The shortage of coins in circulation is even apparent in banks. Withdraw cash from a bank and ask for an amount in coins to facilitate transactions in the informal sector or the underground economy and, most often, the request is denied, with some curt excuse that none is available. Being a persistent person when denied what I feel is one of my rights, I transform into a tenacious and assertive individual. Only then is the truth revealed that the coins are still locked up in the vault, and it requires a tedious process to override the time lock or to disturb the busy bank manager.
Unbelievably, even the Banko Sentral, the entity that prints our money and mints our coins, refuse to disburse the coins to a private citizen. I once called the Bank by phone and asked if they would exchange my paper bills into coins. The polite voice at the other end was almost apologetic. The reply, in a barely discernible and condescending tone, is that the Banko Sentral does not engage in such (low-level inferred) transactions ─ only private banks are entertained. So much for government transparency and service.
I suspect that the coin phobia might be one of the strategies of government in its anti-gambling campaign, particularly masiao and jueteng that use coins as the betting medium. The trick is to reduce the coins in circulation, drive the betting level up to paper bill level, and urge bettors towards the casinos.
Banks will lend you money if you can prove you don’t need it. Mark Twain

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