Monday, January 19, 2015

Are Swiss Bankers Stupid?

Are Swiss bankers stupid?

Yes, answer most commentators. Paul Krugman thinks their depegging the franc from the euro is simply inexplicable. Scott Sumner is similarly perplexed. He calls the act "panicky." Megan McArdle writes "[f]rom an economist’s perspective, this seems like the wrong decision, not just because of the chaos, but because, as Krugman notes, this is going to be hell on the exporters." But she's more generous--they're not stupid. Instead they just made a politically-motivated mistake.

Only the New York Sun editorializes in favor of the gnomes. "Congratulations to the doughty Swiss, we say." But then they ruin their argument with gold-buggery, claiming the world should go onto the gold standard.

So I will rise--somewhat lamely--in defense of the Swiss. But the main purpose of this post is to explain precisely what happened, especially to those who don't follow the financial news as closely as I do.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is a private bank that serves as the country's equivalent to the Fed. It has a special deal with the government that enables it to act as a central bank. That is, it is the lender of last resort, guaranteed never to be illiquid, and accordingly it can print money. It's charged with a mission: "It is obliged by Constitution and statute to act in accordance with the interests of the country as a whole. Its primary goal is to ensure price stability, while taking due account of economic developments."

So last Thursday at 9:30 am the SNB did some very strange things. First, they reneged on a pledge they had made to peg the Swiss franc (CHF) to the euro (EUR). The promise had been reiterated even just days before, and that the bank would renounce it so precipitously took everybody by surprise.

The pledge consisted of this. The SNB guaranteed that the euro would never cost less than 1.20 francs. If the euro fell below that price the SNB would print francs (they can print as many as they want) and buy euros until the market priced them at CHF 1.20 or above. Because the euro has been weak, the SNB was printing goo-gobs of francs to maintain the peg. Accordingly, the SNB owned lots and lots of euros.

The Swiss actually had a good problem--they were trying to keep their currency from rising (identical to keeping the euro from falling). Any central bank can do that by simply printing more money. The opposite problem--the one now faced by Russia or Venezuela among others--is to keep their currencies from falling. Those countries have to sell foreign reserves to make that happen--which works until they run out of foreign exchange. Russia, for example, can't print euros or Swiss francs.

So there was, in fact, no intrinsic reason why the Swiss couldn't just keep printing francs indefinitely and maintain the peg forever. That's what they said they'd do. And they did that until they broke their promise.

What happened is that within minutes of the announcement the euro dropped from 1.20 francs to 1.05 francs, or about a 13% drop. (As of this writing, 1.01 francs buys a euro.) This in a market where fluctuations are typically in the 0.1% range or less, and it put a number of foreign exchange brokers out of business. Also hurt were Polish and Hungarian homeowners. Since the zloty and the forint are not regarded as stable currencies, home mortgages in those two countries were issued in Swiss francs, thought to be the gold standard. Those poor slobs now owe 20% more on their mortgages than they did last week.

So that's the first mystery--why did they break their promise? The second mystery is why they did it on Thursday morning at 9:30 am, in the middle of a trading day? Normally--according to the wise and the good--such announcements are made over a weekend, just after the close on Friday. This gives people a chance to adjust and plan, and so minimize losses. The Swiss didn't do that--instead they picked the most disruptive time possible--the morning of a busy trading day.

So it's been described as a "panicky mistake," the kind of thing you'd do if you're in a corner with only bad options. But that hardly describes Switzerland. The problem with the "panic theory" is there was no good reason for the SNB to panic. There are any number of things that could have solved their problem (if they had a problem) that wouldn't have been as disastrous. They could, for example, have moved the peg from 1.20 to 1.18--a small but meaningful change. That would have shocked the markets, but hardly been the "disaster" that happened.

Conventional wisdom has it that the cause of the SNB's decision was the imminent quantitative easing by the European Central Bank (ECB), the keepers of the euro. The ECB has promised that they were going to print euros in an attempt to induce inflation in the Eurozone. Inflation is needed because governments and people are hopelessly in debt. Inflation effectively lowers the interest rates on existing debt.

Of course printing euros will lower the value of the euro, which means the Swiss would have to print overtime to maintain the peg. The Swiss apparently decided they didn't want to do that. So now people are predicting that the euro will fall to parity with the dollar (as I predicted here, quite by accident).

But the ECB's quantitative easing, while imminent, does not spell crisis for the SNB. It has been announced for some months now--no surprise there--and likely had already been priced into the market. So I simply don't buy the panic theory. I think the Swiss acted with due diligence.

One reason people claim this was a mistake will be massive deflation in Switzerland. Any exports to the Eurozone are now 19% more expensive than before. This will kill exporters, such as the vaunted watch industry. And no doubt this is a problem. But as this Der Spiegel article (in German) indicates, the Swiss are already adjusting. There is a concerted move to lower wages across the board. Swiss in border areas (e.g., Basel or Geneva) can easily buy groceries in Germany or France at a considerable discount. So deflation will hurt them in the short term, but probably not the medium or long term. In a year they'll have adjusted.

Another reason for thinking it's an error is that the SNB will lose credibility. They said they'd keep the peg indefinitely, and then they broke their word--in the most dramatic way imaginable. But the incredible Swiss are crying all the way to the bank--their currency is now worth 19% more than before. Every Swiss citizen is now substantially richer than they were before.

So I think the SNB dropped the peg for good reasons. And here they are:

1) While deflation is bad for debtors, the Swiss are not in debt. Indeed, quite the opposite. They're global creditors. Deflation is good for creditors. So if any country can withstand a bout of deflation, Switzerland can.

2) The Swiss franc is not going to be a reserve currency. It's a tiny country with only eight million people. There is no way they can bail out the euro, which is what everybody was expecting. Far from being a mistake, breaking the peg was the right thing to do. It corrected the previous error of making the peg in the first place.

3) As a small country dedicated to free markets and free trade, the Swiss do not have much macroeconomic control over their economy. They can't regulate either inflation or unemployment. All they can do is set the value of their currency. By tying it to the euro they forfeited even that control. The SNB has credibly reclaimed what little power it once had.

4) Anybody who has savings in Swiss francs is now 19% richer than they were last week. Most Swiss bank savers are Swiss. So what's wrong with that?

5) By doing it suddenly and dramatically, the prevent anybody gaming the system to Swiss disadvantage. Also, all the bad news is out there. There are no more shoes to drop. Folks can get back to their business.

So I don't think the Swiss are stupid. But even smart people make mistakes. We'll know that by this time next year--if unemployment rises substantially then yeah. But I don't think that will happen. Switzerland has never been a low-cost country. Their products are not price sensitive. They'll be able to adjust.

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