Archive for the 'Switzerland' Category

Aug 25 2011

The joys and sorrows of the strong Swiss franc

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.

Discussion questions: 

  1. 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?
  2. How would an increase in online shopping among Swiss households affect the prices Swiss retailers are able to charge for their imported products?
  3. 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?

One response so far

Feb 07 2011

Internalizing externalities: Zurich’s expensive garbage

This post is about how Switzerland has successfully employed an innovative system of incentives to encourage its citizens to reduce the amount of garbage they create. Just three weeks in this amazing country and I can already see why it earned the highest score in last year’s Environmental Performance Index.

In the AP and IB Economics units on market failure, we study the concept of negative externalities, which exist when the behavior of one individual or firm creates spillover costs to be faced by other individuals or society as a whole. A simple example is a factory that dumps waste in a river. Clearly, disposing of its waste in such a manner poses little or no cost on the factory owners, but significant costs on downstream users of the river’s water. A community that wishes to use the river for drinking water must now install expensive filtration and purifying systems just to make the water usable. The factory has kept its own costs down by externalizing the cost of filtration by passing it on to downstream users.

Spillover costs exist on micro levels as well. While it is easy to see how a large factory creates negative externalities, it is often harder to imagine how we as individuals create spillover costs for our neighbors and society in our everyday actions. The stark truth, however, is that an individual’s behavior, multiplied by millions upon millions of individuals making up a citizenry, can have as great if not greater negative impacts on the environment and society as the negligent behavior of one firm.

Here in Switzerland, the behavior of each individual citizen is subject to unusually strict scrutiny. No, Big Brother is not watching, as you may be thinking, (however, I have heard stories of snoopy neighbors alerting the police upon witnessing the most minor of infractions by a fellow citizen), rather, one finds it in his best economic interest to strictly monitor his own behavior down to the finest detail. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Let’s take garbage for example. The definition of garbage in Switzerland is very different from that in the United States. Where I’m from, garbage is anything that you can’t use anymore. You throw it “away”, put it on the curb and it disappears.

A garbage bag in the US is usually a 40 gallon (160 litre) plastic bag that could fit an entire family inside, and the typical American family probably produces two to three bags worth of “garbage” each week, which conveniently disappears in the wee hours of the morning to be taken “somewhere”, which most Americans don’t know or care to know where that is. How much does it cost an American household to dispose of this voluminous quantity of garbage? Well, the bags cost around 18 cents each, and monthly removal services vary depending on the community, but are typically a flat rate for almost any amount of garbage.

In the United States, it is very easy for individuals to pass the true cost of their garbage disposal onto society as a whole. It doesn’t matter all that much whether you put one tiny plastic bag on the curb or a half dozen 40 gallon bags on the curb, you are going to generally pay the same amount for collection regardless. The result of such a system is that the typical household has no incentive to reduce the amount of garbage that it produces. Logically, Americans are inclined to over-consume and produce copious amounts of garbage in the absence of any significant system of incentives in place to encourage waste reduction.

So, what’s different about Switzerland? It’s all about incentives. Let me explain. Here, you don’t pay a flat rate for garbage removal. In fact, you don’t HAVE to pay anything for garbage removal! Oh wow, you say, it’s FREE? In fact, quite the opposite is true. You don’t have to pay anything for garbage removal as long as you don’t create any garbage. In other words, you only pay for what you throw away.

Unlike in the US, here a typical garbage bag here is a 35 litre plastic sack, only slightly larger than a plastic grocery bag. Each village requires its citizens to buy official garbage bags for that community, and each individual bag costs anywhere from $1.50 – $2.50. A role of ten 35 litre bags can cost around $25.

When we consider that anything a household wishes to throw away must be put in an official village garbage bag which itself must be purchased for $2.25, and we know that a typical 40 gallon (160 litre) garbage bag in the US costs just $0.18, we can easily calculate and compare the costs of garbage disposal to both US and Swiss households.

  • In Switzerland: 100 litres of garbage costs $6.40 to dispose of
  • In the US: 100 litres of garbage costs a little over $0.11 to dispose of
  • In other words, garbage removal costs Swiss households around 57 times as much per litre as it does Americans, when we consider the price of garbage bags alone.

Clearly, Swiss households are given a significant incentive NOT to create garbage. So what DO the Swiss do with lots of their waste? Recycle it, of course! See, here in Switzerland all recycling is free. The villages even offer free curb side pick-ups for all recyclable materials.

A simple system of incentives (and dis-incentives) is the secret to Switzerland’s environmental success. Other systems are in place to encourage citizens to use public transport, tread lightly while hiking in the outdoors, conserve energy and water at home, and behave in other environmentally friendly ways, but I’ll save my discussion of those items for another time, once I figure out how to reduce, re-use and recycle all my own “garbage” here in Zurich!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Zurich’s system of garbage collection “internalize” the “externality” associated with household consumption?
  2. Incentives matter. This is a basic economic concept that can be used to fix many of the environmental, social, economic and health problems faced in society. Identify one way your parents have used incentives to try to get you to do something or NOT do something they think you should or shouldn’t do.
  3. Discourage what society want less of, encourage what society wants more of.  Identify and discuss one example of a market in which a government (local or national) uses incentives to discourage certain behaviors, and one example of a market in which incentives are used to encourage certain behaviors.

45 responses so far

Sep 23 2010

The magical recession proof bunny

Chocolate Sales: A Sweet Spot in the Recession – TIME

Living in Switzerland, I find an article featuring a local business from the town my school is in irresistible, particularly when it appear in TIME magazine. Lindt chocolate, the company featured in this article, manufactures its delicate treats right down the hill from the ZIS campus, which means that when the wind is just right, you can just catch the scent of fresh, creamy chocolate wafting up the hillside while walking to campus.

Lindt, as well as its global competitors in the chocolate business, is enjoying surge in demand even while countless other industries are forced to cut back production, lay off workers, and close their factory doors. From TIME:

While the credit crisis has slowed down sales of everything from cars to organic groceries, people seem happy to keep shelling out for chocolate. Last year, as the global recession was gaining ground, Swiss chocolate makers bucked the trend with record sales — nearly 185,000 tons, an increase of 2% over 2007, sold domestically and in 140 export markets…

“Switzerland’s image sells well abroad, and nothing says ‘Switzerland’ more than chocolate,” says Stephane Garelli, director of the World Competitiveness Center at the Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, predicting that this comfort food will continue to sweeten the sour economy for months to come…

“Now that people don’t have a new television or a new car,” he noted, “they eat a bit more chocolate.”

“Chocolate is one of the more recession-resilient food sectors,” says Dean Best, executive director of Just-Food, a U.K.-based news and information website for the global food industry. “With consumers eating out less and eating at home more, there is evidence that they are still allowing themselves the occasional indulgence — and chocolate is a relatively inexpensive indulgence.”

But the question of why there is no meltdown in the chocolate business may be more a matter of psychology than economics. “There is well-documented evidence going back to Freud, showing that in times of anxiety and uncertainty, when people need a boost, they turn to chocolate,” says Garelli of the IMD. “That’s why when the economy is bad, chocolate is still selling well.”

Which goes to show that chocolate is more than a candy treat — it’s real food for the soul.

So does this mean chocolate is an inferior good, or one for which demand increases as incomes fall? I doubt many Swiss chocolate producers would consider their product inferior, but perhaps it does fit the definition.

On the other hand, perhaps the reason demand for chocolate increases during a recession has more to do with the substitution effect than the income effect. As people eat out less, they consume fewer expensive deserts at restaurants and instead fill their shopping baskets with more affordable dessert options for the home. I can say from experience that this is the case for myself.

Living in Switzerland, I find myself rarely going out to eat at restaurants, an activity reserved for special occasions in this country where a steak can set you back 75 dollars. Instead, I eat at home almost every night, and nothing is more appealing to me, especially during hard economic times, than a bar of delicious chocolate after a home cooked meal. Demand for chocolate may rise during recessions simply because the demand for one of its substitutes (restaurant desserts) falls.

Discussion questions:

  1. Do you think chocolate is an inferior good or a normal good? What’s the difference? What types of goods do YOU consome more of when you find yourself faced with a tighter budget?
  2. Does economics have a good explanation for the above situation? The article mentions Freud, a pioneer in  the field of psychology; do humans’ economic behavior always appear rational?
  3. If chocolate were an inferior good, what would happen to chocolate sales when the global economy finally turns around and incomes start increasing? What do you think will happen to chocolate sales when the economy starts imrpoving? Explain.

31 responses so far

Mar 05 2009

Some good news for Swiss businesses and workers during hard economic times

Two items consisting of good news from the local English language news in Switzerland. The first article says that small and medium-sized enterprises, in other words family owned businesses, are likely to come out of a global economic slowdown relatively unscathed and healthy.

Swiss SMEs are well placed to survive the economic recession. – swissinfo

Family-run firms in Switzerland are well set to survive the global recession having put long-term growth before quick profits in the good years, a report concludes.

Such small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which account for more than 88 per cent of all Swiss companies, are also cushioned by an aversion to taking on too much debt but still face succession problems.

The survey of 300 Swiss family-owned SMEs found that 68 per cent of companies are less motivated by making money than in maintaining the good name of the firm.

Some 83 per cent of owners put the healthy state of their company down to risk aversion and 39 per cent said long-term planning was crucial to success.

Swiss family business consultant Hakan Hillerström contributed to the study by Barclays Wealth and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Often, without a stock market listing, family businesses are insulated from the need to meet the short-term demands of investors and so are better placed to ride out volatility than their listed peers,” he said.

Second is a story about the mobility of skilled labor in Switzerland. When global demand for one of Switzerland’s most famous exports, watches, falls, Swiss watch makers are snatched up and employed by other industries in which demand is actually increasing during the recession: namely, rail car engineering and construction. Similar skills are required of workers in both industries, watches and rail cars. I suspect demand for rail cars has increased because of the multiple fiscal stimulus packages being initiated around Europe, many of which include funding for infrastructure expansion, including upgrading and expanding rail networks.

I am impressed by the flexibility of labor markets in Switzerland in times of economic hardship. Such labor mobility as demonstrated below helps Switzerland weather economic woes more easily than it would if workers laid off from one industry could not easily find employment in others, such as is the case in many countries.

Enterprises in Vaud to exchange workers to beat redundancies. – swissinfo

Skilled workers from the Swiss watchmaking industry could soon find themselves building locomotives instead.

A new project to meet the challenges posed by the financial crisis has been launched in the French-speaking canton of Vaud, with the backing of the major trade union and employers associations, as well as the cantonal government.

The idea is that businesses experiencing a temporary shortfall in orders will be able to lend their workers to others facing a shortage of labour.

“It’s pretty ridiculous to pay people to sit around and do nothing,” Yves Defferrard of the Unia trade union told swissinfo. “But when they have no work for them, employers can often think of nothing better than to lay them off. That’s the wrong way to manage a crisis. It’s what happened in the downturn of 2000.”

4 responses so far

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