It was a “massive overvaluation,” according to the country’s central bank, the Swiss National Bank (SNB). Under pressure from the country’s exporters, the SNB announced that “the value of the franc is a threat to the economy” and said it was “prepared to purchase foreign exchange in unlimited quantities” in order to drive the price down.
A threat to the economy? It was the exporters who were doing the screaming, but everybody else in Switzerland was better-off. When the franc rises, everything the Swiss import goes down in price, whether it is cotton shirts, TVs, or cars. The standard of living for everybody goes up. Every citizen of Switzerland benefits from a stronger currency. Our dental technician down in Geneva is not calling up and moaning. She is happy. Everything she buys is cheaper. But the big exporters get on the phone and the government takes their call.
The alternative scenario is what happened in July 2010, the last time the Swiss tried to weaken their currency. They did so by buying up foreign currencies to hold against the franc-selling the franc to keep the price down. But the market just kept buying the francs, and the Swiss central bank, after quadrupling its foreign currency holdings, abandoned the effort. At that point, when the bank stopped selling it, the Swiss franc rose in value, all the currencies the Swiss had bought (and were now holding) declined in value, and the country lost $21 billion. In the end, the market had more money than the bank, and market forces inevitably prevailed.
All of which is true, but I think the problem runs deeper than that. The Swiss for decades had a semi monopoly on finance. And as a result they have become less and less competent. The entire economy has been overprotected. The reason Swiss Air went bankrupt is because it never really had to compete. Any monopoly eventually destroys itself, and Switzerland, in predictable fashion, is corroding from within. As a result, other financial centers have been rising: London, Lichtenstein, Vienna, Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong.
I still have those original Swiss francs that I bought in 1970, and since then the franc is up about 400 percent. Granted, it has been over forty years, but 400 percent is nothing to sneeze at. Plus I have been collecting interest. Had I kept the money in an American savings account, it would have gone down 80 percent against the franc.