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Dollar Daze

Imagine, please, that instead of providing a monthly paycheck, your employer has a few quirks (as if that requires imagination), and your weekly windfall arrives in pennies, not paper.

So every week, you lug this leaden loot to the bank to swap for dollars.

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But this week, the teller says it now takes 140 pennies to buy a buck. Same treatment from the grocery clerk. Want a $1 bottle of soda? One-hundred-forty cents, please.

Keep in mind that your pay didn't go up. Your purchasing power just dropped by about half.

Know what that means? It means you live in Asia - Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea. It means the Asian currency devaluations are real life.

Last June, for example, a Thai citizen could buy an American buck with 24 baht. Now it takes 42 baht.

In practical terms, your bank said, "Start bringing 175 pennies." In Thai terms, anything made in the US - or Europe, for the same reason - now costs 75 percent more. Air conditioners, refrigerators, computers - not the entire spectrum of consumer goods and services, but enough to force hard choices on Thai people.

A sympathetic story.

But not the full story.

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Consider a Thai cement company that paid a visit to Citibank last May and walked away with a one-year $1 million loan. Now that the Thai currency has all the buoyancy of cement shoes, the company must earn 42 million baht instead of last May's 24 million baht to pay it back - in a big hurry.

That's where it hurts, all over. Billions in what the markets call short-term, "dollar-denominated" debt across Asia.

Hop from Thailand over to South Korea, scene of the latest monetary meltdown. Last June, South Korean banks owed $89 billion in US-dollar loans; $78 billion of them due in less than a year.

Back then, it took 888 Korean won to buy a dollar. Friday, it cost 1,172 won. In market-speak, the Korean currency has been devalued by about one-third.

So that $89 billion grew 32 percent more expensive, the equivalent of adding $27 billion to the load.

This describes a boat in a storm with a leak in a rotten hull headed towards a reef surrounded by hungry sharks.

This makes it no longer South Korea's problem. It's Citibank's problem, perhaps your bank's problem.

Those billions were loaned by banks in the US, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, France, and Japan. It would hurt them if those loans fail.

And that, folks, helps explain why the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - controlled by seven of those eight countries - rushed to rescue Thailand, Indonesia, and especially South Korea. "Especially" because it owes the biggest bundle, $25 billion, to Japan. And if Japan feels another wave of bank problems, US financial institutions face treacherous waters.

How bad is it? Well, the IMF's Korea bailout loans set a record: $60 billion, versus $48 billion in 1995 for Mexico.

And where Mexico pledged future oil payments as collateral for its rescue, South Korea has promised to be good.

Meanwhile, the IMF secured economic changes from all three Asian countries that now make them more attractive to outside investors - and banks.

That may help explain why the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost almost 1,000 points when Asia unravelled, and why it has gained back all of that since the IMF got interested.

Welcome to the global economy.

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