In Switzerland, it’s not just the clocks that are cuckoo. Over the past four years Swiss politicians and central bankers have gone on an unprecedented buying spree of foreign exchange reserves. In 2012, their cache swelled to as much as $420 billion worth of various currencies, primarily the euro. This figure is a seven-fold increase since 2008 and equates to 70% of the country’s annual GDP. The sum translates to $200,000 per family of four, enough to keep the Swiss in clocks, chocolates, and fondue for many years to come. The Swiss leadership will claim the money has been “invested” with an eye to the future, but what they’ve done is impoverished themselves in the present. Although such a decision seems perverse, it makes perfect sense when seen through the lens of today’s presiding economic thinking.
For the past few generations Switzerland has enjoyed some of the strongest economic fundamentals in the world. The country boasts a high savings rate, low taxes, strong exports, low debt-to-GDP, balanced government budgets, and prior to a few years ago one of the most responsible monetary policies in the world. These attributes made the Swiss franc one of the world’s “safe haven” currencies. But in today’s global economy, no good deed goes unpunished.
Central bankers around the world, particularly in Washington, Frankfurt and Tokyo, have been engaged in a massive and coordinated campaign of currency debasement to combat the recession. But for years the Swiss refused to join in the printing parade. As a result, investors around the world wisely decided to park their savings in the reliable Swiss franc. From December of 2008 to August 2011 the franc appreciated an astounding 59% against the U.S. dollar and approximately 30% against the Japanese yen. More importantly, the franc gained 42% against the euro. As the Eurozone completely surrounds Switzerland, its trade with those countries represents the vast majority of its international transactions.
During this massive run up in its currency, the Swiss economy continued to prosper. Wages and purchasing power increased and GDP grew consistently faster than other countries in Western Europe. Despite generally positive export statistics, some Swiss exporters noticed that at times the strong franc put them at a disadvantage against foreign competitors. In addition, the strengthening currency helped keep a lid on consumer prices, giving Switzerland a consistently low inflation rate with occasional bouts of actual deflation. Despite the fact that Switzerland was an island of economic health amidst a sea of problems, the reigning economic orthodoxy convinced Swiss leaders that their strong currency was a burden rather than a blessing. More pointedly, the rise in the franc was seen as a repudiation of the expansionary policies occurring in other countries. And so the Swiss government decided to join the currency killing party.
In early August 2011, the Swiss National Bank took a series of steps to reverse the fortunes of the franc. In the simplest terms, they sold francs and bought foreign currencies, most notably the euro. The announcement included a promise to buy unlimited quantities of foreign exchange to maintain a floor of 1.20 francs per euro. In so doing, the Swiss essentially outsourced their monetary policy to the Eurozone. Any moves taken by the European Central Bank would need to be matched by the Swiss. Ironically, it was fear of this outcome that kept the Swiss from adopting the euro in the first place. Despite the former bias toward independence, the Swiss have de facto adopted the euro anyway. Since that time, the franc has fallen 16% against the dollar, Swiss foreign exchange reserves have skyrocketed, and investors who bought francs as a means to escape debasement have been betrayed.
Read More at Real Clear Markets . By Peter Schiff.