Prepare Today For the Year 2K
The next 417 days will bring either the Reckoning, or just another weekend - depending on whom you ask.
The year-2000 computer bug, also known as Y2K, will probably affect most people. The only question is, how much.
When some computers crash as the calendar hits Jan. 1, 2000, it almost certainly won't bring the Armageddon envisioned by some, experts say.
Y2K presents a problem because computer programmers over the past three decades have shortened dates. They've told computers to recognize "98" as 1998, for example. But the concern is that when the year 2000 arrives, some computers may mistake it for 1900.
So any computer that relies on some calendar function - such as bank computers that print checks, Wall Street computers that track transactions, and shipping computers that schedule supertankers - could miscalculate or even shut down.
The potential consequences range from disruptive to disastrous, and institutions are spending billions on solutions.
But they aren't the only ones who should be planning for the event. Consumers and investors, say experts, can take some basic steps to prevent important information from being lost.
"We have to think about contingency planning," says Ed Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, but "not survivalist behavior."
Contingency planning for your finances starts with organizing all those monthly bank statements, says Louis Barton, program director for Y2K with Frost Bank in San Antonio, Texas. Know where they are so if a bank's computer loses track of your money, you can prove that you had it.
The same applies to statements from credit-card, brokerage, and insurance companies and others - even your retirement savings plan at work.
If a computer currently keeps track of important information, make sure you have a hard-copy backup. Because if your broker's computers see that on Nov. 2, 1998 you bought 100 shares of IBM, it may not know you own them if it decides that the year 2000 is really the year 1900.
The problem is serious enough that it could paralyze pockets of corporate America. Chrysler, for example, last summer tested computers at one plant for Y2K problems and found that they worked fine - except for the automated security system, which locked everyone out.
So Mr. Yardeni says individual investors should tilt their portfolios away from stocks toward bonds and cash - money-market mutual funds and savings accounts - 40 percent bonds, 25 percent cash, and 15 percent stocks. In any case, cashing in all your investments will only compound the problem, experts, say.
Remember New Year's is a long weekend, Mr. Barton says, and criminals are already onto this. "If you're worried about [losing] money, you sure don't want it in your possession" in cash, he says. It's safer in the bank.
The best approach to identifying your vulnerability is to make a list of all the ways you depend on technology, Barton says. Identify which electronic products rely on calendars, and which would bring the biggest hardships if they failed.
Many home appliances may be a nuisance to reset, but they will work, he says. Automakers say cars should run fine, because their chips don't rely on a calendar.
The biggest problem consumers may face, Barton says, is with personal financial software, especially if they bank online. Y2K could cause payments not to register, for instance.
Banks themselves are likely to have their computers fixed, experts agree.
The question is whether they will have electricity to run the computers, Yardeni says. Like many industries, power companies belong to an electronic daisy chain.
"Even if the local utility is compliant, it's not good enough if they don't get oil, and ships don't get to port," says Yardeni. The oil industry is among the most automated in the US, and he worries that parts of the country may lose power.
The electric industry has responded by talking with suppliers and transportation companies, and stockpiling coal, oil, and natural gas, says John Arnold, chief technology officer for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington.
IMPERATIVE Y2K RECOMMENDATIONS
* Replace pre-Pentium PCs.
* Upgrade or replace PC software written before 1998.
* Contact the makers of your software and obtain written assurance of Y2K compliance.
* Make sure your bank will be compliant by the end of 1999. If not, move your money to banks that will.
* Contact companies that installed programmable thermostats and security devices.
* Obtain a copy of your credit report before and after Jan. 1, 2000.
* Ask state insurance regulators if your insurance company is Y2K compliant.
* Submit Medicare claims early in 1999.
* Keep 1999 bank and credit card statements and pay stubs.
* Request a copy of your Social Security personal earnings and benefits statement listing annual earnings and future benefits before and after Jan. 1, 2000.
* Request copies of your last five years' tax returns from the IRS if you don't already have them. (Use form 4506.)
* Carry credit cards that expire before 2000 to use in swiping devices that can't read dates after 2000.
Dec. 31, 1999 Recommendations
* Get a full tank of gas.
* Backup all software and data files on your computer.
* Make hard copies of financial records.
* Do not take an elevator near midnight.
* Keep a couple of weeks' spending money in case your ATM is temporarily down
* Stay away from potentially hazardous sites such as airports and nuclear plants.
* Unplug electrical devices.