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Andrew Tobias on Y2K
Here are some recent articles from popular financial advisor Andrew Tobias:
It's Time to Prepare for 2000
(Published on August 19, 1998)
There is a small but real chance our lives will be considerably disrupted
January 1, 2000.
The purpose of this comment is not to alarm you or to join the ranks of
perennial gloom-sayers. It was great sport making fun of them in the late
1970's and early 1980's. These were the folks who insisted inflation could
not be reined back in without a total collapse of the economy, that a well
diversified investment strategy consisted of a home in the woods with a
gun, some gold coins, and a year's supply of trail mix. Not to say things
couldn't have spiraled out of control back then ... just that these folks
seemed so sure that the "morons" in responsible positions did
not grasp the
problem and would almost surely not do sensible things to solve it. That's
where my naïve optimism paid off: I didn't think the Volckers of the
(Paul Volcker: then head of the Federal Reserve) were remotely morons. I
thought that when push came to shove, they would shove back as needed. It
is this same naïve optimism that leads me to hope that Japanese leaders
will act in the nick of time (they need, for starters, to cut way back on
their tax rates, nationalize some of their banks, and "open the books"
more transparent accounting), thus to avert an even much worse Asian crisis
that could easily become a world crisis.
One cannot be sure of such things, which is why one hedges one's bets.
(Note that Warren Buffett, no market timer, has nonetheless bought billions
of dollars in zero-coupon, long-term U.S. Treasury bonds and millions of
ounces of silver. I am not recommending either of those for mere mortals
like us--for one thing, the price of those zeroes has gone way up since
bought them. But I do know that money you might need in the next five years
belongs in the bank, not the stock market.)
But the Year 2000 problem is different. The Y2K problem can't be solved
getting the powers-that-be to adopt sensible policies. Yes, part of the
problem could be one of leadership and psychology--if people panic, panic
alone will cause a financial calamity that could otherwise be avoided. So
we need to count on our leaders to avert that--and I think they will. But
part of the problem is simple nuts and bolts. For one thing,
January 1, 2000 arrives in 501 days and cannot be put off. Can you think
another such crisis? Not counting the precise arrival time of an incoming
comet? Any Y2K problems prior to that date will be primarily psychological
in nature (The comet is coming! The comet is coming!), and thus avoidable.
But any problems from that date on--well, they would be real.
Which is why companies and governments are spending billions and billions
and billions of dollars to fix the problem ... which is why, in turn, most
of us assume it will be a minor annoyance at most ... which is why we could
be caught unprepared ... which is why I,m writing this column now rather
than, say, next summer.
The Y2K problem will probably be a minor annoyance to most of us, but it
could quite possibly be a huge mess.
The biggest worry is what we,d do if the power went out. Which means, I
think, that gasoline would soon go out, too, since gas stations run on
electric power. No light, no heat, no refrigerator, no elevator, no
computer ... if it lasted just a few hours, as after a bad storm, it would
be no big deal. But longer?
Probably this won't happen, but it's pretty hard to be absolutely certain.
A friend of mine who I can say without a trace of modesty is much smarter
than I am, long ago founded an institute to consider such nuts-and-bolts
planetary problems. He is concerned about embedded processors. These little
items are buried in things like the railway system. They took the place
the guy who would go out and manually switch tracks at the appropriate
time, so trains careening through a junction headed in the right direction.
So what if 2% or 5% of these embedded processors have a Year 2000 problem
and, because they think it's 1900, fail to switch properly? How long would
it take to locate them all (they,re embedded! buried!) and replace the ones
that need fixing? And in the meantime, he asks, how would things like food
replenish your supermarket shelves?
Somewhere else I read about the problem--I hope it's a myth--of an ancient
piece of software that tells old computer fans when to go on and off. It
naturally wouldn't affect your Compaq. But what of some of the old
mainframes? Everything else is working perfectly, according to this
disaster tale, except this virtually prehistoric little bit of code
controlling the fan. The fan does not go on (the code thinks it should wait
100 years before 20 minutes will have passed since the last time it went
on), the computer overheats and goes down, and whatever it is
controlling--the air traffic control system, your Social Security
check--goes down with it.
I do not remotely have the competence to assess the reality of these kinds
of threats. I know they,re real, or companies wouldn't be spending hundreds
of billions of dollars to try to deal with them. I know they,re real, also,
because people like my friend the institute-founder do have the competence
to assess these things and do not believe 100% of the Y2K problems around
the world can be solved by midnight on December 31, 1999. And I know
they,re real because the world is sufficiently interconnected that a
problem in Japan or Italy can easily cause a problem in your home town.
score of 95% is an A in high school but would leave 5% of the Y2K software
glitches undetected. Depending on what they were, these glitches could
cause tremendous problems.
So the comet is coming, and now, when nobody's panicking, is the time to
our emergency-preparedness stuff. Because the paradox is that if we do all
prepare for food shortages and panic-in-the-streets, there won't be food
shortages or panic in the streets. But if we don't, there just might.
Make a Little List
(Published on August 20, 1998)
Yesterday I did the best I could, as a layman who understands this stuff
not nearly as well as many of my readers, to persuade you to think--and
act--now to prepare for the Year 2000.
Think of it as a hurricane with just a 20% chance of hitting. But
potentially a very big hurricane. What would you do? Just take your chances
that it will veer off into the ocean?
At its worst (which I am not predicting), imagine how you'd cope without
electricity for a few weeks. This would also mean no elevators, no
computers, no TV, possibly no gasoline (it's pumped), no purified water,
You might want:
1.A lot of canned food and a manual can opener.
2.A lot of bottled water and canned or bottled beverages.
3.An electric generator and some very carefully and safely-stored gasoline.
4.A lot of matches and candles and Sterno and maybe Duraflame logs,
depending on where you live.
5.Some hand-crank-powered radio/flashlights (and solar-powered radios).
6.A solar water heater.
7.A lot of toiletries, paper goods, and, especially, any of the medications
you normally take or might need. (Check with your doctor or pharmacist for
expiration dates, and keep the appropriate ones refrigerated to extend
their shelf life.)
8.A good bike and a pump to inflate the tires.
9.Some cash, and perhaps a bag or three of silver dimes (dimes minted
before 1965, or thereabouts, when dimes were made of silver). 10.Printed
records of all your important computer files.
I've always dreamed of an exercise bike that would power a generator and
recharge a big battery. I've even written letters over the years suggesting
it to some of the mail-order firms. Has anyone seen such a thing? You'd
your canned food, pedal off the calories, recharge the batteries, and get
that computer up and running after all. (And what about mini-versions for
The time to begin listing this stuff, and acquiring it and finding a cool
place to store it, is now. A year from now, let alone December 1999, some
of it could be harder to come by.
Let's assume there's an 80% chance the Year 2000 hurricane will pass us
entirely. Not even a blip or a recession. Still, it makes sense to be
prepared. Especially inasmuch as this hurricane, if it hit, would be
global. You couldn't necessarily expect help to come flooding in from the
neighboring county, because the neighboring county could well be in the