- Most of Puerto Rico remains in the dark and without power three weeks after storm
- With widespread power failures, Puerto Rico remains cash only with retailers only accepting cash and few consumer having cash
- Shortages of food, fuel and medicine with infrastructure repairs delayed
- Power could be 'out for months' as 85% of people remain off the grid
- Around 75% of ATMs disconnected
- Electronic forms of payment including bitcoin have been rendered non viable
- Puerto Rico's accidental 'cashless society' shows risks of cashless society and importance of holding cash, gold and silver out of the financial and digital systems
Editor: Mark O'Byrne
Aerial photo of flooding in Puerto Rico. Washington Post
Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two savage hurricanes which have plunged the island into darkness and despair. The landscape of ruined homes and entire towns resembles Hiroshima after the man made disaster of a nuclear bomb being dropped on the city.
More than three weeks since Hurricane Maria hit the island, 3.7 million American citizens are on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster. The majority of these people are desperate for food, water, electricity and shelter. They are desperate for cash that will allow them to secure these basic necessities.
Over 84% of the island remains without power and 37% of people are without access to water. Without power, much of the population is does not have electricity to charge their phones and iphones. Very few have wifi and this is severely impacting their ability to communicate and conduct their lives.
Inevitably, the future of Puerto Rico now lies in the wrangling hands of government and financial organisations, all of which seem to be pointing the finger of blame at one another.
The territory's government expects to run out of cash by the end of the month. It has asked Congress for an immediate payment of $6 billion to $8 billion. This is to meet vital expenses including salaries, emergency repairs, and pension payments.
"We will run out of cash as of Oct. 31 of this year," said Raul Maldonado, the territory's treasury secretary. "As of November, we will not be able to operate as a normal government."
Given the country's dire electronic and communications situation, tax receipts are way down which will likely exacerbate the dire economic situation even further.
Problems are not just at a government level. Day-to-day life for Puerto Ricans is also obviously extremely hard and increasingly dangerous. The island is in a cash black-hole with little access to or means to buy essentials.
Not only is there a shortage of cash but the majority of ATMs are down. Even if cash was aplenty, few people are able to withdraw pay checks or access their digital savings and make payments electronically.
It is a stark reminder of how reliant our economies and day-to-day lives are on electricity. It is a stark reminder of how dependent our modern digital currencies - whether they be public fiat or private crypto currencies - are on increasingly antiquated electricity and power infrastructures.
Today the faith we put in governments that basic utilities will continue regardless is unprecedented. Citizens in Western nations rarely (if ever) question how they would manage if they had no access to electronic money or bank accounts and could make digital payments online or by credit and debit cards.
Puerto Rico should be a warning to us all. No matter how wealthy your country, how "sophisticated' your central bankers and central banking system and how technologically advanced your infrastructure, we can all be rendered poor overnight by the power of Mother Nature.
'You're broke even if you have money'
'Cash Only' is reportedly a common phrase across many of the retailers on the territory. The majority of gas stations and grocery stores are only accepting cash payments. Citizens have little choice but to try and find cash.
However, shoppers have the same problem retailers do - they can't get the cash they need. Reports the New York Times:
Fewer than half of Puerto Rico’s bank branches and cash machines are up and running, still crippled by diesel shortages, damaged roads and severed communications lines. Bank officials say they are struggling even to find employees who can get to work when there is no public transportation and gasoline is hard to find.
Across the island, people who have spent their last dollars on an $8 bag of ice or $15 for gasoline are waiting for hours outside banks and A.T.M.s in hopes of withdrawing as much money as possible.
“You’re broke even if you have money,” Mr. Jimenez told the New York Times.
But is there really a cash shortage? Zoime Alvarez, vice president of the Association of Banks of Puerto Rico told the New York Times that not only was there already enough cash on Puerto Rico but there was more arriving to meet what the New York Federal Reserve called “extraordinarily high demand.”
Does this matter though when there is electricity failure across the island? This isn't the only problem - transport networks are down and organisations are struggling to deliver goods and services.
The infrastructure issues are unlikely to be fixed soon.
Already in a bad way
It's no secret that prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was already in a poor financial state. Private creditors were circling looking for the $74 billion that has been lent to the island in recent years. Now the cash situation is set to get even worse.
A federal government bill is set to increase the island's liabilities by a further 14%.
In addition to the country's $74 billion in bond debt, there is also a further $49 billion in pension obligations.
With this sorts of liabilities its unlikely creditors are going to put much faith in the future of the island. Whilst Congress is likely to agree some funding, it will not help the territory with its long-term finance issues.
This will no doubt exacerbate increasing unemployment numbers and criminal activity.
Cash and electricity shortages are forcing some residents into a bartering and others into borderline criminal activities as they seek out ways to find more cash.
Mr. Jimenez, who waited in line outside Scotiabank, said the cash shortage forced him to get creative and tiptoe into the black market. Here in his eastern hometown, Fajardo, he was able to use his credit card to buy several packs of Newport cigarettes from a big-box retailer before the store ran out of diesel and had to shut down.
He and his wife traversed their neighborhood, selling packs of cigarettes for $10 each. Mr. Jimenez said he was not trying to make money — just to stockpile cash to use at the gas stations and markets that now accepted nothing else.
“I’m like a drug dealer,” he joked.
Prior to the hurricane residents were warned to stock up on all essentials, but few could have realised just how important cash would become.
Few people appreciate this. In times of disaster like this, cash becomes king. Followed closely by gold and silver which can be traded for cash or used as deposits or for payment for life's necessities.
Most shopkeepers who are struggling to sell their merchandise as they cannot take electronic payments and whose potential customers do not have cash will gladly accept small gold and silver coins and bars as payment in lieu of cash.
Coin dealers, jewellers who buy from the public and pawnbrokers in Puerto Rico have been very busy since the crisis as people exchange gold and silver jewellery and bullion coins and bars for cash.
Ironically, less and less governments want us to have access to cash, let alone to gold and silver, and this is making us more fragile financially.
Our economies are more vulnerable than ever in this regard and the modern drive to embrace all forms of digital currencies and the cashless society is setting ourselves up for an even bigger fall.
No cash transactions means no transactions
The Puerto Rico problem will only get worse. Not only are ATM and banking networks down but employers and government cannot make payments they need to make to individuals' accounts.
In the long-term this is a problem likely to be faced by many nations that rely solely on electronic systems for all payments.
We have previously discussed the push by governments and banks to a cashless society. In the United Kingdom, 89% of the total value of consumer payments are non-cash payments. In Canada, it's 90%.
Disasters such as Puerto Rico do not appear to be considered by banks and governments who claim cashless societies are better for all. Reasons for going cashless include clamping down on tax evasion, illegal cash activities and increased spending.
However, when an electricity and overall infrastructure crisis hits (as we see in Puerto Rico) the 'convenience' of a cashless society quickly falls flat on its face.
This is also the situation for anyone who was hoping bitcoin (or 'insert another cryptocurrency') might be the answer when banking systems can't operate. However bitcoin transactions require electricity, a lot of it, and wifi. As with cashless fiat transactions they are as problematic when there is no power.
This is why in times of such crisis there is such demand for not only hard cold cash but also for gold and silver. None of them can suddenly become inaccessible thanks to power shortages or the inability of a government to sort out local infrastructure.
Too late for cash?
For now the Puerto Ricans are 'fortunate' that their currency is the U.S. Dollar. This means the value of the cash in their accounts is unlikely to be majorly affected by Hurricane Maria and the resulting crisis.
But if Puerto Rico were an independent nation then it would almost certainly be experiencing a fall in its currency. At this point all of the goods and services it needed to import in order to help it to recover would be increasingly expensive - as seen in the UK after Brexit.
Meanwhile gold and silver would be accepted as they are borderless currencies that do not operate within the confines of a government, central bank or electronic system.
Gold and silver often get a bad rap when it comes to discussions about their role as money. Both are pushed to the bottom of the pile when you consider the convenience of spending them compared to the likes of electronic cash, paper notes and bitcoin.
But one thing that is guaranteed with them is that you know you can use them in times of crisis. They are highly durable and highly desired. That is not the case with fiat or bitcoin when it comes to the crunch as seen in Puerto Rico in recent days.
No matter the town, city or country you find yourself in, times such as these pose multiple threats whether military or natural.
We all assume that governments are competent and will look after us. We cannot bring ourselves to imagine electricity systems and our banking systems including ATMs going down and not having access to our hard earned savings.
But it happens, all too many times as this last hurricane season has demonstrated. Prudent savers who like to be prepared should consider the magnitude of disasters such as Hurricane Maria - food runs out and electricity goes down.
You think you are wealthy and then suddenly, you have nothing.
You need cash and means of exchange in order to survive.
Diversifying your emergency funds should be a priority, this means hold some cash and gold and silver coins and bars to ensure you can survive and thrive with or without government's help.
Best to hope for the best but be prepared for less benign scenarios.
The people of Puerto Rico would attest to the power of this today.
News and Commentary
Gold Prices (LBMA AM)
13 Oct: USD 1,293.90, GBP 972.88 & EUR 1,093.73 per ounce
12 Oct: USD 1,294.45, GBP 977.96 & EUR 1,092.26 per ounce
11 Oct: USD 1,290.20, GBP 978.62 & EUR 1,091.90 per ounce
10 Oct: USD 1,289.60, GBP 977.77 & EUR 1,094.61 per ounce
09 Oct: USD 1,282.15, GBP 976.23 & EUR 1,092.01 per ounce
06 Oct: USD 1,268.20, GBP 970.43 & EUR 1,083.93 per ounce
05 Oct: USD 1,278.40, GBP 969.28 & EUR 1,086.51 per ounce
Silver Prices (LBMA)
13 Oct: USD 17.20, GBP 12.94 & EUR 14.55 per ounce
12 Oct: USD 17.20, GBP 13.06 & EUR 14.50 per ounce
11 Oct: USD 17.15, GBP 13.00 & EUR 14.51 per ounce
10 Oct: USD 17.12, GBP 12.98 & EUR 14.53 per ounce
09 Oct: USD 16.92, GBP 12.86 & EUR 14.41 per ounce
06 Oct: USD 16.63, GBP 12.73 & EUR 14.20 per ounce
05 Oct: USD 16.66, GBP 12.64 & EUR 14.19 per ounce
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