Jamaica banks rationing US dollars

(Jamaica Observer) Restrictions of varying degrees on the sale of US dollars do appear to be in effect at some of the major commercial banks in Kingston, despite a declaration by Bank of Jamaica governor, Derick Latibeaudiere, to the contrary.

The methods undertaken, based on Sunday Observer visits to the main branches of Scotiabank Jamaica, the Royal Bank of Trinidad & Tobago (RBTT), First Global Bank, FirstCaribbean International Bank and National Commercial Bank (NCB) on Friday, range from limiting the amount of the currency allowed one person, selling the tender only to customers of the particular bank, and ordering the money three days in advance.

Last Thursday, the Observer reported that president of the Jamaica Manufacturers’ Association (JMA), Omar Azan, charged that some local banks had introduced a system of rationing which limited the amount of US funds released to customers. However, in the same story, Latibeaudiere said the central bank was not micro-managing commercial banks and that he was not aware of any restrictions on foreign currency.

On Friday however, as this reporter waved an imaginary cheque for J$560,000 before bank personnel, I had no luck getting the equivalent US$6,333 (using a rate of J$88.415, the average selling rate of the institutions visited). I was either told that I would only be able to get US$2,000; that I had to lodge the cheque and wait three business days for the order to be processed; that I couldn’t get it because I did not have an account at the particular bank; or simply that there were no US funds available. At least two of the institutions – Scotia and First Global – said the restrictions weren’t always in place but that they were “recent developments” based on “what’s been going on”, obvious references to the global financial crisis and the resultant credit crunch which have sent the value of the Jamaican dollar on a fast downward spiral.

Rather than join the long lines inside Scotia’s main branch in downtown Kingston, I sought guidance at the information desk. The clerk explained that foreign currency was scarce and that I could only get more than the bank’s US$2,000 limit if the teller and/or supervisor was satisfied that I had a “very good reason”. This, she said, included critical purchases by business people.
An “ordinary person”, she said, would not be so successful because of fears that the funds would be hoarded, a situation that she said could push the exchange rate even higher.

The news across town at the RBTT head office on Dominica Drive in New Kingston was worse.

“We have no US at the moment,” the teller said after speaking with someone on the telephone.

“Meaning, the amount I’m requesting, or at all?” I asked, remembering that I saw a man who was three places ahead of me collect what appeared to be US$100.

“None at all,” she replied, telling me I could check back before 4:00 pm when the bank closed as she “couldn’t say when” the currency would next be available at the branch.

Prior to that, I had asked her how much I would get for my J$560,000. She said she wasn’t sure and I was to give her the cheque so she could call it in. Since my cheque only existed in the land of make belief, I asked if the bank didn’t have set rates which she could use to calculate the amount.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head.

“So what about the display board?” I countered. The teller then recited the disclaimer written at the bottom which said the rates were subject to change without notice.

“The rates are unstable right now. That’s why I asked for the cheque so I can call and find out,” she added.

Down the road at the New Kingston branch of First Global Bank, the teller told me right off the bat that they couldn’t help me unless I had a First Global account, even if the cheque had been drawn on that bank.

I asked if this had always been the case but he said it was a recent development.

“US funds are scarce now, so we only sell to people with accounts here,” he reiterated after consulting first with his supervisor, then with another individual locked behind a card access door.

He suggested that the solution was to lodge the cheque with the bank with which I had my account.

Inside the New Kingston branch of FirstCaribbean on Knutsford Boulevard, the teller said US$6,000 was “a bit much for one customer to get”. She did not say how much was allowable but advised that if I had an account there I could lodge the cheque, order the funds and pick up the US in cheque form on Thursday, three business days later.

The story was not much different further down the popular New Kingston stretch. At NCB, I was told I’d be able to get the amount requested but that if I had a non-NCB cheque, I had to lodge it into my account first. If I wanted cash, I would have to order the amount at the teller and return in three days.

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