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Tracking a dollar around the world

Chris Farrell Jun 15, 2012

Question:  Hello Marketplace Money! I have a question that’s been gnawing at my curious mind! Would you investigate the trajectory of a single dollar bill? Let me explain. So you go to the store and buy things, then you pay with a $100 bill. What happens to that note? In a nutshell, my question is: What is the route that a single bill takes? How does it circulate? How far can it travel? Homero, Sacramento, CA

Answer: Good idea. A dollar or dollars can go a long way. Trying to trace the route a dollar takes is a terrific way at looking at the global economy from the ground up. Your email sent me to my bookshelves at work. About a decade ago, author Barbara Garson took an intriguing stab at your idea  in Money Makes the World Go Around: One Investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy, from Brooklyn to Bangkok and Back

She took part of her book advance and put $29,500 into the Bank of Millbrook, a privately owned small-town bank in New York. She invested $5,000 with the mutual fund Mutual Shares (a well-known fund managed by the value investor Michael Price).

Garson made a Herculean effort to follow the path of her money, although it’s technically impossible for her to have actually followed specific bills. She wanted to see where her money went and how it was close up.

To connect the financial mechanisms with personal lives, I had to go step by step, asking embarrassingly ignorant questions of Wall Street bankers, Bangkok food venders, Malaysian jellyfish exporters, Chinese labor contracts, illegal Burmese immigrants, British engineers, Texas oil-company treasurers, Maine electric blanket weavers, Singapore shippers, U.S. mutual fund managers, and scores more.

The book is dated in many respects, since it was published in 2001. A lot has happened to the global financial system and the global economy since then. 

Still, in skimming through the book this morning, I thought it was remarkable how much of the money journey she describes remains timely, especially her struggles with the mix of good, bad and shades of nuance in between about the effects of globalization. I took a picture of the cover. You might want to take a look at it.

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