March 11th 2009
Swiss Franc Rises on a Trade-weighted Basis, but Down against the Dollar
Most of the “safe haven” talk in forex circles has focused on Japan and the US. Switzerland, meanwhile, has also attracted is fair share of risk-averse investors, who are piling into Franc-denominated assets, despite the deteriorating Swiss economic situation. In fact, February witnessed an inflow of $4 Billion, most of which was targeted towards gold and money-market funds. The Swiss Franc, as a result, has appreciated by 9% (on a trade-weighted basis), since the summer.
The Swiss National Bank (SNB), meanwhile, has cut interest rates by 225 basis points over the last six months. If it delivers on a unanimously-anticipated 25 basis point cut at its meeting tomorrow, its benchmark lending rate will stand at a paltry .25%. To the frustration of the SNB, the “deflation trade” is still in vogue, as traders have counter-intuitively taken to betting on the countries and currencies that offer the lowest interest rates. From an economic standpoint, this trend is eroding the effectiveness of an easy monetary policy, such that the SNB has been forced to consider less conventional approaches.
This would probably take the form of quantitative easing, in the same vein as that which the US and UK are currently pursuing. Under such a policy, the SNB would buy credit instruments on the open market, and pay for them by printing money. This would have the dual effect of devaluing the Franc and easing liquidity problems in Swiss securities markets. While normally a country in Switzerland’s position (especially one whose banks have recently come under fire for secret bank accounts would take flak for such a policy, Swiss (economic) neutrality largely eliminates this burden. Another alternative, which has been proposed by the heir-apparent for SNB chief, is to create a ceiling on the value of the Franc.
Either way, a lower Franc looks like a real possibility. Says one analyst, “Switzerland is likely to…cut interest rates and intervened [sic] verbally to weaken the Swiss franc, threatening unsterilised intervention. If this does not work, and we are sceptical that it will, actual intervention may be required and we suspect this will have some impact. The bottom line is that the franc looks vulnerable.”