By Nury Vittachi
IT HAPPENS TO ALL of us. You slip some cash in a pocket, forget all about it, and a year or two later you find $43 million that you’d completely forgotten about.
Of course, the change I find in old pockets doesn’t ALWAYS add up to $43 million. Sometimes it’s more like 43 cents, but you can buy a lot of food for 43 cents, if you’re not too snobbish to visit the pet food section.
This thought was triggered by an LA Times report which said $43 million of mislaid public money was recently found by an accountant. The report didn’t identify where the money had been, but I’ll wager it was that little key pocket in the right trouser leg, the home of much ancient treasure and foodstuffs.
I mentioned this to a colleague named Vicky who had just mislaid a biggish banknote. As I helped her search for it in the office, I got thinking about other examples of lost cash. Remember when H&R Block Inc., the tax accounting firm, lost $100 million because it couldn’t do its tax accounting right? That’s as ludicrous as, say, a police officer asking for a bribe. Wait. That happens every day in Asia.
And remember when JP Morgan Chase announced that its estimate of how much it lost in an unauthorized trades scandal was $4 billion off target? I’d love to overhear these guys’ budget discussions with their wives. “Hi honey, I only spent about 20 bucks at the bar this evening. No, wait, it was four billion and 20.”
I asked a financial journalist friend to find the biggest accounting error ever. She said that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble double-checked his country’s accounts and found it was 55.5 billion euros richer than he’d thought. Wow. Fifty-five bill is a heck of a lot of money to stumble on. I mean, that’s enough to buy a tiny, horrible bedsit in Hong Kong.
I wonder if Schaeuble (who surely has more vowels in his name than should be legally allowed) has spent it all, or whether it’s worth shooting off a begging letter? He found the cash in October 2011, and no one can get through 55.5 billion euros in two years. Except my wife. And my daughter. And my other daughter. And all their friends. Okay, never mind.
Vicky, desperately pawing through her handbag once more for the missing note, then said: “I went to the bank yesterday morning and got just a little bit of money out. Now it’s all gone.”
That’s when I knew it wasn’t missing at all. There’s NO WAY the Olympic-standard shoppers I hang out with could carry “a little bit of money” for one and a half days without spending it.
I made her mentally go through all the places she’d visited in the past 24 hours and we quickly worked out where the cash had gone. It had followed the laws of physics to its inevitable home in the cash register of a shoe shop. “Okay,” she admitted. “I spent it and forgot.”
I told her that it would sound better if she used professional language. “Just say you made an accounting error.”
(25.10.2013 – Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send comments and ideas via http://www.mrjam.org)