What’s the difference between a bank and a black market money changer?
Sanne van Oosten
Well, for one thing, trading your money from one currency to the next is a much less strenuous exercise when one gets their money at a bank. Quite different from changing your money with a black market money changer, and we can know, we have experienced both. Still, without all the stress while changing the money, we don’t see all that much difference between the two. Both are cheaters, the only difference being that bankers get away with it, while black market money traders do not.
Let me tell the story. Traveling through Myanmar can be quite challenging. For one thing, due to the economic sanctions, no foreign banks do any business with Myanmar. Meaning, you have to take a stack of crisp US dollar bills into the country and trade it for the local currency, kyat, on the spot. Exchange rates vary tremendously, so you have to look around before deciding where to change the money. You can change money at proper banks and hotels, but the best rate is found on the street. And when we say street, we mean the street. Just go to the street and wait until some uncouth looking young man approaches you and whispers, pssssst, wanna change some money?. Usually travel instincts will tell you that it’s better to change your money at the hotel lobby, but in the case of Myanmar, you’ll never find a better exchange rate than on the street.
If venturing out into such an endeavor, you have got to know what you are doing. You need to know what the best prices are and how to go about the deal. These people are going to try and cheat you out of as much money as you’ll allow them to. So we haggled the price down to the lowest we could get it and agreed on a deal. We waited under a tree until they went (to their mafia-esque superior?) and got the money. We made sure that we had the money they gave us safely in our bags before we handed them over a single cent. When our newly changed money was safely tucked away in our bags, we handed them over our money. It was quite a stack of bills, so they took a while counting it. We were watching their every move.
Then, the youngest of the gang started to distract me. In broken English he started yelling that he wanted a commission of $1,-. That wasn’t part of the deal, so we explained how we didn’t want to do that. He kept on pushing and pushing until we said that we wanted the deal to be off. So we took back our stack of bills and wanted to give them the money we had stored away in our bag. But, when we felt the money they gave back to us we noticed it had magically shrunk in the meantime. While the boy was distracting us with his request for the $1,- commission, the guy counting the money had made about a third of the bills disappear up his sleeve, in his pocket or wherever. We were furious and gave these street rats a good yelling, gave him the $1,- commission and were happy they hadn’t cheated me from more.
Happy to be back in non-sanctioned lands with working banks and ATM’s we wanted to take out some money while in Cambodia. Having had much trouble finding an ATM that took our card, we finally found a bank. After going through all the options the screen on the ATM told us that a $5,- fee was going to be deducted from our account for the transaction. Having exhaled a quick sigh of frustration we clicked accept.
Every single time we have traded money at a bank or taken out money from an ATM, a bank had earned a considerable amount off of the transaction. Ok, they need to set up infrastructure to ensure that our cards are accepted and we can take out money from many remote corners of the globe. But isn’t $5,- a little bit excessive? Every time this happens we don’t yell at anyone, we don’t threaten to break off the deal, we don’t even really go away in a huff, and we definitely don’t call anyone a street rat. But why not? Why do we accept cheating if a bank does it, even though we don’t when a black market money changer does it?
Before venturing out on a money changing expedition, we made sure we were educated in the field. We checked out numerous sources to find out where the best deals were and we made sure we knew what we were doing. We were aware that they were going to cheat us, so we made sure we were well equipped to do that. On the other hand, when going to a bank or random ATM, we never do that. We approach these institutions without educating ourselves on the ways in which they could cheat us. This way we are more vulnerable than ever.
When trading money on the street, we knew what the prices were supposed to be and haggled the shit out of them until we came to the best possible price. We made sure the deal was clear to everyone before we agreed on the transaction. But what can you do when deducting money from an ATM machine? You don’t even know what is going to be deducted by the bank at hand before you are near the end of the transaction. Then you can still back out, but there is always more. The bank at hand will say they’ll deduct, say, $5,- for the transaction, “commission”? But you often still see this: “plus additional fees charged by your own bank.” What these fees are, no traveler really knows, until you check the balance on your bank account and can no longer reverse the transaction.
When finding out we were being cheated, we wanted to reverse the deal right away, but we found out they had made a large chunk of our money disappear… seemingly vanished into thin air. Sound familiar? If not, let me help you out. After September 2008 more and more banks have been collapsing or getting into serious financial trouble. Even though banks often believed the were “too big to fail”, some of these banks didn’t come back, meaning many people lost their savings and equity funds plummeted. Some banks were bailed out by their governments, meaning gazillions of tax payer money was being poured into these institutions. They made a large chunk of our money disappear.
Back to the question I posed before. Why do we accept cheating if a bank cheats us, even though we don’t accept this when a black market money changer does it? It all had to do with institutionalization and class. First off, how satisfying would it be to scream at an ATM? If we call a bank angrily after an excessively high amount is taken off our bank account, we’ll be caught in a web of bureaucracy. They have a safety net set up so nobody can get to them. Second, it has everything to do with class. Fancy bankers in their suits with cufflinks seem like they know what they are doing. They present banking as a complicated business justifying excessively high pay and bonuses. Everything is as flashy as possible, thereby blinding us with their complicated made-up knowledge. But actually, it’s all very simple. Just as simple as with the black market money changer. But their exterior is different. They look unkempt, filthy, poor and underprivileged. We even went so far as to condescendingly call them street rats. But aren’t bankers the real street rats, doing the exact same thing, only with fancy outfits, cars and penthouse apartments?
So what’s the difference between a bank and a black market money changer? Actually, there isn’t much difference. The only difference is that we didn’t accept being cheated when a black market money changer, yelled at them and even condescendingly called them street rats. On the other hand, we do accept being cheated by banks every day. They take undefined amounts off of our bank accounts with a simple ATM transaction, they ask for much more “commission” than a Burmese black market money changer would ever dream of doing, and most importantly of all, they made a large chunk of our money disappear. In the case of the banks, nobody was held accountable, nobody had to pay for the economic downward spiral that started after the banks started to fall, we never educated ourselves to stand up against these banks, and worst of all, since this all happened, there seems to be no widespread social criticism. We are letting ourselves be cheated and, therefore, this could all happen again.