Last Friday my favorite podcast, NPR's Planet Money, did a feature story called “Switzerland’s too Strong for it’s own Good”. The gist of the story is that the uncertainty over budget deficits and the national debt in the US and Eurozone at this time are causing international investors to put their money into the Swiss franc and Swiss franc denominated assets. Switzerland's reputation for financial discipline and fiscal responsibility makes it a safe-haven for international investors feeling jittery over the large budget deficits in Euro countries and in the United States.
The Planet Money team discusses why the rising value of the franc poses a threat to the Swiss economy. To understand just how much the franc (CHF) has strengthened against the currencies of its trading partners, examine the graph below, which shows the rise (and recent decline) in the value of the CHF against the currency of Switzerland's neighbors, the Euro.
As can be seen, earlier this year on CHF was worth only around 0.76 euros, but as recently as August 10 one CHF could buy nearly 0.95 worth of goods from Euro countries. Of course, cheaper imports is a benefit to Swiss households, but what we need to realize is that this upward trend in the value of the CHF also means that all Swiss goods are becoming more expensive to European consumers. And here's the problem with the stronger franc. Over 50% of Switzerland's output is exported to the rest of the world (meaning a large proportion of Switzerland's workers depend on strong exports), and the more expensive the country's currency, the more expensive the goods produced by Swiss businesses become in the countries with which Switzerland trades.
A simple example would help: A Swiss chocolate bar that sells for two CHF would have cost a European consumer only 1.50 euros in February of this year (when one CHF = 0.75 Euro). But in early August the same bar of chocolate would have cost the European consumer 1.90 Euro, an increase in price of nearly 30%. This may not seem like much to a casual observer, but when you realize that Switzerland's biggest exports are capital goods and financial services, which cost far more than 2 CHF, a 30% price hike placed on foreign consumers is much more noticeable. If a train engine that sold for 1 million Euros suddenly costs a European transport agency 1.3 million Euros, you can imagine such a transaction would become much less appealing, and demand for Swiss rail engines will begin to fall, putting Swiss jobs at risk.
Here on the ground in Switzerland, the effects of the strong franc have definitely not gone unnoticed. One point of discussion in the podcast is the fact that Swiss retailers have strangely not begun lowering the prices for their imported products. For example, one would expect that a bike shop selling bikes made by American companies in Taiwan would be able to lower its price for those bikes as one franc now buys about 30% more US goods than it could earlier this year. Logically, a $1000 bike that used to cost 1,100 CHF for a Swiss bike shop to import now only costs that shop around 800 CHF to import. The Swiss consumer should begin to see lower retail prices reflecting the lower costs to Swiss importers. Strangely, however, this has not materialized, and most retailers have kept their prices at the same level they were before the rise of franc's value.
Perhaps retailers are unwilling to lower their prices because they are uncertain whether or not the franc will remain strong, and they would not want to have to be in a situation in which the franc suddenly weakens and their costs rise once again. Perhaps retailers are simply enjoying the greater profits resulting from falling costs and the same high prices. However, as a consumer myself living in Switzerland, I would guess that this is not the case, because I and many other people I know here have reduced the quantity of goods we buy from Swiss retailers. In the age of online shopping, it is now cheaper than ever to order goods like bicycles, clothing and electronics from foreign retailers through the internet.
For example, I recently ordered a bicycle from the United States that sells for $1,100 there. At current exchange rates, I was able to order this bike for only 800 CHF from the US. The same bike in Switzerland has a retail price on it reflecting the US dollar/CHF exchange rate of several years ago, and sells for 1,500 CHF. Of course, any imported product is charged a duty by customs, but even after paying around 160 CHF in duties, I still am saving nearly 500 CHF on this bike. The result is Swiss bike shops selling foreign brands have experienced a decline in sales as consumers like myself have chosen to order their good from foreign retailers, whose prices are much lower due to the stronger franc.
As an American working in Switzerland, I also benefit from the strong franc in that all of my debts are in dollars. I own a house in the States, and still have about four years left on my student loans from grad school. The strong franc reduces the burden of these debts and allow me to keep more of my income in Switzerland, sending home less and less money each month to cover the same expenses back home.
The big question on everyone in Switzerland's minds right now is whether the rise of the franc will continue, or whether it will return to an equilibrium exchange rate against the euro and the dollar closer to levels seen earlier this year. Swiss exporters (chocolate companies, watch makers and train engine manufacturers) are hoping the franc will fall again. Households, on the other hand, will continue to enjoy the cheap online shopping opportunities, and may eventually enjoy cheaper retail products in Switzerland if importers become more comfortable lowering their prices to reflect the lower costs of their imports.
I predict that the rise in the franc is over, but that in the next few months it will reach an equilibrium against the dollar and the euro somewhere well above its historic level (around 1.5 francs per Euro and around 1.1 francs per dollar). I believe the franc will settle around 1.1 CHF per Euro and around 0.85 CHF per dollar. Once these exchange rates have settled and the wild fluctuations of the last month come to an end, Swiss exporters and importers alike will begin adjusting their costs and prices to reflect the more stable equilibrium to which we will become accustomed.
Living and working in one of Europe's and the world's strongest, most fiscally sound economies has its advantages. But in a world of free trade and floating exchange rates, panic among investors abroad has the potential to fire a devastating blast into the ship that is a healthy economy like Switzerland's. But over time, just like in any speculative bubble, the rise in the value of the franc will stop, it will begin to fall once again, and everyone will come to their senses as import and export prices once again begin to reflect the true exchange rates between the franc and the currencies of its trading partners.
- Strong is always better, right? A strong army, a strong economy, a strong leader. But when it comes to currencies, strong is often not better. Why is a strong currency potentially harmful to a nation's economy?
- How would an increase in online shopping among Swiss households affect the prices Swiss retailers are able to charge for their imported products?
- How would a Swiss exporting firm, such as Rolex (a watch manufacturer) be affected by the rising value of the Swiss franc? What would such a firm have to do to keep its products at a competitive price in foreign markets?