Where have all the ATMs gone?

Having your highest denomination banknote be worth 10 cents is an insanity you grasp fully only when you realize it's renders ATMs pretty much useless.

Look, I know people are hungry, and this can seem banal. But in its own way, it’s a unique illustration of how bad the Venezuelan crisis has gotten. Chavismo has found a way to defeat that standard-bearer of neoliberal orthodoxy: the automatic teller machine. ¡La lucha sigue!

I’m serious. These days, the most you can get out of an ATM machine in one go is Bs.1,800…just under two bucks, at the black market rate. That’s 18 bills, often crisp and new…and able to buy you about two short cab rides. ATMs are not useless, another victim of the revolution.

In fact, Venezuelan banks are now reducing the number of available ATM machines.

One private bank manager told El Carabobeño’s Dayri Blanco that the costs to handling a large ATM networks are simply a losing proposition. The basic problem is the logistical nightmare involved in dealing with the masses of bank notes the ATMs need.

Economic consultant and former executive technical director of the Venezuelan Bank Association (ABA) Jose Grasso Vecchio recently told Globovision that an average heavily-used cajero is now emptied in just three hours. These machines were just never designed to have virtually every customer withdraw the maximum amount allowed.

With costs skyrocketing, it’s no surprise banks are rushing to get out of the ATM provision business — including those outside their own branches, especially in locations with time restrictions.

I reached out to the Venezuelan Bank Association (ABA) to check on El Carabobeño’s story and the subsequent public reaction. At the time of this post’s publication, their press department has not respond to my request.

In Barquisimeto, where I live, the impact of disappearing ATMs has been quite obvious. When the programmed four-hour rolling blackouts were under way, finding a working ATM without a large line-up waiting was just a beautiful dream.

The need for higher denomination bills is now blindingly obvious to everyone, including even some people inside the BCV. Apparently, Nicolas Maduro isn’t approving the idea, for reasons only Gerardo understands. So the proposal has ended in the same place reasonable ideas go to sleep, the BCV’s top men are quite busy discussing “the Marxist economy”. That sounds like fun.

A few days later, the BCV gave the banking sector a small consolation prize: raising the caps on fees for operations involving credit and debit cards. Grasso Vecchio welcomed the BCV’s decision, saying this increase is the first of its kind in seven years.

But he also said that the logistical and financial costs of keeping cajeros working (from paying insurance and security firms to importing hardware and supplies to repair damaged ATMs) are rising, which makes adding still more ATMs is unsustainable.

What’s his solution? “…we must embrace e-banking to avoid the excessive use of cash…”

In response, Venezuelan banks push point of sale machines (puntos de venta) to relieve the pressure on cajeros. In effect businesses are already using their point of sale machines as makeshift ATMs, as Efecto Cocuyo recently noticed. They provide quick cash to those who need it and charge as much as a 20% commission, depending of the type of card (debit or credit).

Seems like the puntos are here to say. It’s not only formal retailers are embracing it, but even some street vendors. El Pitazo’s Armando Altuve visited hot dog stands in Chacaito already using them. Customers find it a good option as they avoid carrying large amounts of cash to have a bite and owners think POS machines make their job easier and protects them and their employees at the moment of closing shop late at night.

But puntos is not immune to the current crisis: the Venezuelan Commerce and Services Council (Consecomercio) has warned about the shortage of both puntos and cash registers which affects their operations and brings them into conflict with the central government (for example, making them vulnerable to administrative sanctions).

Si no es una vaina es la otra.