The soaring price of shares in the Swiss National Bank poses many questions

Pocket

by Shaun Richards

We find ourselves today looking at a country which exhibits many of the economic themes of these times and one of them is brought to mind by this from the fastFT twitter feed.

US 10-year bond yields creep further towards 3% milestone

The fact that the 10-year Treasury Note yield is 2.99% is part of what is called “normalisation” of interest-rates and bond yields, although care is needed as we have been here before. But my subject of today can say the equivalent of “bah humbug” to this as it has a 10-year yield of a mere 0.13%. If we look back and take a broad sweep it has had this yield averaging around 0% for the past five years with a low of -0.6%. In fact Switzerland can still borrow out to the 8 year maturity and be paid for doing so as its yields are negative out to their. So the old normal remains a distant dream ( or nightmare depending on your perspective) and let me throw in a thought. There are arguments you should use such times to borrow and invest but the Swiss have pretty much set their face against this.

The Confederation wants to ensure room for manoeuvre for future generations by means of a sustainable fiscal policy. It has been pursuing a strategy of a balanced budget in the medium-term and a low level of debt since the start of 2000…………Thanks to the debt brake, it has been possible to considerably reduce federal debt ( Department of Finance February 2nd 2018).

According to the OECD it has a national debt of just under 43% of annual GDP. Of course there is a virtuous circle between bond yields and fiscal surpluses but for these times Switzerland is rather abnormal to say the least.

Negative Interest-Rates

The Swiss National Bank has contributed to the above via this.

Interest on sight deposits at the SNB is to remain at –0.75% and the target range for the three-month Libor is
unchanged at between –1.25% and –0.25%.

Money rates are at -0.73% if you want precision and as Swiss Banks have some 573 billion Swiss France deposited at the SNB there will be an icy chill felt although of course the SNB did take measures to protect the “precious”. Nonetheless there is a cost. From Reuters.

Swiss banks paid 970 million Swiss francs ($1 billion) in negative interest rate charges in the first six months of 2017, according to central bank data, up 40 percent year-on-year as clients continue to hoard cash.

Interesting isn’t it that so far ( and we have over 3 years now) there has been little impact on cash holdings? We learn a little more about negative interest-rates from this as there does not seem to be much of an adjustment so far.

Boom!

Last week saw what was quite an event. From Reuters.

The Swiss franc fell to a three-year low of 1.20 against the euro on Thursday as a revival in risk appetite encouraged investors to use it to buy higher yielding assets elsewhere, betting on loose monetary policy keeping the currency weak.

This took us back to January 15th 2015 when this happened.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it.

This was how interest-rates were reduced to -0.75% as the previous policy of “unlimited intervention” fell to earth. It was not that the SNB was running out of reserves as when you intervene against a strong currency you are selling something you do have an unlimited supply of at least in theoretical terms. But it was a combination of the scale of interventions  required and the side-effects and consequences which in this instance broke the bank policy.

As ever a move in interest-rates of 0.5% was in currency terms like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg and the Swiss Franc surged.

; in midMarch 2015 it was at CHF 1.06 per euro, constituting a 12% appreciation against the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro in place until mid-January. ( SNB)

For newer readers wondering why the Swiss Franc was so strong it had been kicked-off by the reversal of the Carry Trade. If you look back in time on here you will see analysis of what I called the Currency Twins of the Swissy and the Japanese Yen who were affected by enormous levels of foreign borrowing pre credit crunch. This strengthened those two currencies after the credit crunch as some rushed to get out and of course the currency markets noted that at least some were desperate to get out.

This had a substantial human cost as many mortgage and business borrowers in Eastern Europe had taken advantage of low interest-rates in the Swiss Franc. They then faced surging monthly repayments when they were converted into the currency in which they had an income and quite a crisis was started. Of course doing such a thing was stupid but care is needed as whilst you should be responsible for your own actions it is also true that the banking sector did its best to miss lead on this issue and hide the risks faced.

Hedge Fund

On the road to the 15th of January 2015 the Swiss National Bank built up an extraordinary amount of foreign exchange reserves. In fact since there it has also intervened from time to time but on a much more minor scale.

The SNB will remain active in the foreign
exchange market as necessary, while taking the overall currency situation into consideration.

Which according to the 2017 annual report has led to this.

The level of currency reserves has risen by more than
CHF 700 billion to almost CHF 800 billion since the onset of the financial and debt crisis in 2008. The increase is largely due to foreign currency purchases aimed at curbing the appreciation of the Swiss franc.

Which has led to this as I pointed out on the 15th of March.

The majority of the SNB’s foreign currency investments are in government bonds, bonds issued by foreign local authorities (e.g. provinces and municipalities) and supranational organisations, as well as corporate bonds, or are placed at other central banks. The proportion of equities is one-fifth. Two-fifths of the foreign currency investments are denominated in euros, and more than one-third in US dollars. Other important investment currencies are the pound sterling, yen and Canadian dollar.

It has become rather a large hedge fund as we note the diversification into equities. Also we get a hint of why Euro area bonds have done so well as not only has the ECB been buying via its QE program so has the Swiss National Bank. A rally driven by competing central banks?

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as for example if we start with an international perspective what will happen to equities if the Swiss National Bank should stop buying and start selling? The bellweather of this is Apple where according to NASDAQ it owned some 19.1 million shares at the end of 2017. Care is needed as we are just below the 1.20 level and the SNB intervened at considerably worse levels but it could decide to reverse course soon at least in part unless of course it is singing along to the ladies of En Vogue.

Hold me tight and don’t let go
Don’t let go
You have the right to lose control
Don’t let go

Don’t let go
Don’t let go

Meanwhile staying with the theme of equities there is the ongoing issue of shares in the Swiss National Bank itself.

This has led to quite a lot of speculation that one day the private shareholders might get a share so to speak. This is how it looked back in October.

Less than a month after its stock smashed through the 3,000-franc-a-share barrier, SNB shares hit an intraday high of 4,324 on Wednesday and were trading as high as 4,600 on Thursday. The stock has tripled in value from a year ago, repeatedly confounding market watchers by regularly hitting records.

It is now 8380 Swiss Francs according to Bloomberg. Should shares in a central bank be doing this? The answer is clearly no as we mull a central bank which is partly privately owned.

Moving back to Switzerland I note many are calling this a success for the SNB. Odd isn’t it that this way round the counterfactuals that many are so keen on when things go wrong for central banks seem to get lost in a fog of amnesia? The truth is we do not know as currency trends ebb and flow but there is of course another factor. Any economic slow down would start currently with interest-rates at -0.75% posing the question of what would happen next? Perhaps they will run into Korean Won. From February.

The swap agreement enables Korean won and Swiss francs to be purchased and repurchased between the two central banks, up to a limit of KRW 11.2 trillion, or CHF 10 billion.

 

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