Good cold cash cuts no ice with his broker

MIKE LITTWIN

September 13, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

This really happened. I am standing in the hallway of a famous brokerage house where I have an account so insignificant they send out my monthly statement on a postcard.

The brokerage firm will remain unnamed, but its mascot is an animal famously unwelcome in china shops. Not to mention many living rooms.

Anyway, I am standing there with $1,000 cash in one hand and a deposit slip in the other.

"I'd like to make a deposit," I tell the woman behind the kind of plush desk you'd expect to find in a famous brokerage house.

She smiles and says, "We don't take cash."

I say, blinking, "You don't understand. This is American money."

She smiles again.

"Look," I say, pointing at your basic greenbacked American legal tender, "that's Ben Franklin. I've got 10 Ben Franklins, each worth $100 any place in America. You know Ben. Came to Philadelphia with a loaf of bread under each arm. Penny saved, penny earned. Hang together, hang separately. We fought the British just so we could have our own money and wouldn't have to say farthings anymore. Here, I'll bite into one. See, this money is good."

"Not here," she says, still smiling.

And as I wrestle her to the floor, she explains why they can't use cash money. It seems they spit on actual money in places like this unless it's the kind that comes over a wire or through a computer or if Bill Gates personally brings it over.

They don't even take yen.

That was the start of my bad money day. Actually, it was bad even before then. The reason for bringing the cash in the first place was that I had written a check on this account, and the check was going to bounce.

It's fair to ask why someone like myself, who thinks Wall Street is a rapacious, mendacious institution with which no right-thinking person would ever associate, has an account with this famous brokerage house.

The answer is easy: greed.

Remember greed? I set up the account back in the '80s when everyone did business with a brokerage house because Ronald Reagan and Gordon Gekko assured us that, if we did, we would soon all become rich. Many did. Some of us did not.

After years of buying high and selling low, I allowed the account to settle into a form of dormancy, to be touched only in times of emergency.

The emergency this time comes courtesy of the MasterCard company, which sent me a bill greater than the amount in my account. The only way to make up the difference is with cash. You know why. If you write a check to put in your account, it won't clear much before the millennium or when Al Gore reduces the size of the federal government, whichever comes first.

A check wouldn't work. Cash doesn't work. I even try to barter -- but it seems that a pair of smelly old Reeboks aren't worth what they used to be.

And so I go back to my office, where the day gets only worse.

While waiting for the Big Bounce, I pick up the paper and read a story that begins: "As millions of Americans pour money into mutual funds at a record rate -- nearly $1 billion a day -- concerns are growing that the funds are bringing new risks to the savings of many people and instability to the markets in which they invest."

In other words, we're doomed.

Like many of you who have no money to speak of, I do have a retirement plan down at the plant, which is supposed to allow me to spend my golden years in some luxury, or at least in the best darn trailer money can buy.

Under this plan, I invest some money, the company invests some money, and it all goes to some guy who runs a mutual fund. We give him the money, which he invests in the market, because he's smarter than we are in the ways of finance, meaning he knows the difference between, say, eurodollars and pork bellies.

People have rushed to invest their life savings in mutual funds because interest rates are so low you have to pay banks these days to hold your money. In fact, many mattresses will now give you a higher rate.

And so, with now $1.8 trillion invested in mutual funds, the market is through the roof, meaning famous brokerage houses are getting richer. Meantime, we're set up for a giant fall if the market takes a major dip.

What should we do? Don't ask me. But I have learned this much: If you want to keep investing, don't bring cash.

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