Amid the April Foolery in your office tomorrow, keep an eye on news reports from Japan, Canada and New York state. All three begin their year 2000 fiscal years Wednesday, and thus will offer useful feedback, one way or the other, on the state of Y2K-readiness ... and perhaps on the scale of any possible systemic problems.
As hundreds of thousands of computer programs start working with those entities' FY2000s, and dealing on a "live" basis with fourth quarter 2000 dates from next January through March, we'll have another early indicator of likely gains or pains along the bumpy path to Y2K.
The international business community is especially concerned about Japan's response to Y2K so far -- call it "whistling past the graveyard," and you'll be close -- and about crises that may ripple out into world markets from domestic Y2K failures in Japan next year.
Japanese corporate bankruptcies, already soaring, are likely to exceed 20,000 this year, and that dark statistic has had a marked dampening effect on Japanese companies' willingness to spend enough, soon enough, to fix Y2K problems.
If I were worried about whether my company -- or some of those with whom we were allied in our
-- were even going to exist come Jan. 31, 2000, I'm not sure I'd OK spending a few billion yen (or more) to fix our Y2K problems, either. But no problem we have faced in our adult lives so well illustrates the "everything's connected to everything else" complexity of the modern world as Y2K. And with Japan's prominence on the international market, failures there will travel like tsunamis across the globe, moving quickly and increasing in severity and impact as they go. Worth a close watch for the next few days.
Elsewhere on the Y2K front, with just 275 days left till Jan. 1, 2000, there is both good and bad news from Washington.
Tuesday the U.S. government admitted it would not meet its self-imposed deadline of having all federal computer systems Y2K-compliant by today. The White House said it still hopes for 90% compliance governmentwide by the close of business today, but also admitted that about 25% of the White House's own systems won't meet the deadline.
And despite cheery statements from White House Y2K czar John Koskinen -- a man who daily faces an almost impossible job with admirable equanimity and wit -- about his confidence that there won't be any problems nine months hence, other government officials, including Sens. Bob Bennett (R., Utah) and Chris Dodd (D., Conn.), the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate's Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, warned that many government agencies still face daunting challenges. Among their big worries: the
Health and Human Services
On Monday, the
said most U.S. telephone carriers will have their problems fixed in time, with only few and brief outages likely. But if the electric-generation industry doesn't fix its substantial remaining problems, telcos will have trouble keeping their lines up. (And remember that while telcos' lines carry their own power, if you have any on-premises equipment for managing calls in your office or home such as a PBX, an electrical outage in your area will freeze you out of access to those phone lines, even if YourTel has been able to keep them up. A good argument, I think for cell phones for individuals' emergency backup. But cell-overload, in the event of problems with land lines, could be severe.)
Also: While the
has let it be known that it's going to bump up the cash in circulation this year to about $200 billion, a third more than usual, to counter Y2K hoarding by worried individuals, it also sees a potential jam-up of troubled banks lining up at the discount window for quick bridge loans just after the first of next year. The loans would help them stay open and quell customer worries, if the banks run into computer problems.
Fed Governor Ed Gramlich last week quietly asked Congress for legislation that would allow the Fed to respond quickly, on an as-needed basis, to those requests, without being held to its usual balance-sheet standards. Banks' aggressive use of computer technology over the past decade to move funds around quickly, to avoid or diminish the bottom-line impact of Fed reserve rules, puts banks' operations at substantial risk if even small computer problems crop up. Since this walnut-shell game relies on older, larger systems, not today's PCs and servers -- and those "legacy systems" are precisely the ones most vulnerable to bad-code problems, from ancient COBOL programming -- this largely hidden problem could have a substantial impact.
, not even irrational exuberance, frightens the Fed so much as the possibility of a crisis of consumer confidence in the U.S. banking system.
The Fed also announced earlier this month that it will allow banks in the process of merging to defer integrating their check-processing operations until next March, in an effort to keep banks' focus on chasing down Y2K problems, fixing and testing them.
In general, the Federal Reserve's actions have been spot-on, exactly the kind of emphasis on paying attention to the real problems that I'd expect from St. Greenspan's shop.
I'm getting more comfortable every day with U.S. banks' growing readiness for Y2K -- with considerable help from an enlightened Fed. Whatever you think of banks as a group, I think there are increasingly promising opportunities among them.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At the time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in the companies discussed in this column, though positions can change at any time. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback.