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Why is the Swiss franc losing its 'safe haven' lustre?

The Swiss currency has only been devalued once since 1850, but it's finding itself adrift in a world awash with debt.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 20 May 2015

Formative years

Given the reverence in which many hold it, it's a surprise that the 'Swissie' came into being as recently as 1850 - pegged at a value of 1.5 French francs. (By comparison the pound dates back to the eighth century). Before its introduction, a most uncharacteristic monetary chaos had reigned in sensible Switzerland. With 22 cantons and half-cantons all issuing their own money - as well as numerous private banks - some 8,000 different coins were in circulation.

A business-like insistence on stability plus the famous anonymity of the numbered Swiss bank account made the franc an unrivalled store of value throughout the war-torn 20th century. As other currencies went fiat and became increasingly volatile, the Swissie was devalued only once, in 1930, as a result of the Great Depression.

Even after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, it maintained its convertibility to gold: until 15 years ago, it was backed by gold reserves to the tune of 40% of the value of all Swiss francs in circulation.

Recent history

But - whisper it - the franc's unimpeachable probity is in danger of being, well, impeached. Rather like Germany vs the rest of the eurozone, the root of the Swissie's problem is that it has been left as the only player still prudently abiding by the old rules. In a world awash with debt, major currencies are in a race to the bottom, which has made managing the franc's value a serious challenge.

Issuing authority the Swiss National Bank was obliged to impose first a floor on the exchange rate of EUR1.20, then negative interest rates, effectively charging depositors to hold their money in Swiss accounts. But all to no avail. On 15 January this year the SNB abruptly removed the exchange rate peg and the franc soared by 30%. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost overnight on the currency markets, not to mention a substantial chunk of the franc's good name.

Who's in charge?

Former university lecturer Thomas Jordan is president of the SNB, having taken over the hot seat in 2012. Why did he pull the plug on the peg so spectacularly? Why did he do so without warning? And what other nasty surprises has he got in store? Those are the questions that angry and out-of-pocket forex traders want answers to - preferably involving president Jordan's head on a platter.

Don't mention

Cash. As deflation takes hold across the globe, the chief drawback to holding a large stash of folding money under the bed rather than in a bank - that its value is eroded by rising prices - no longer applies. Add in increasingly onerous tax regulations in the US and UK and the days when the super-rich could rely on departing Geneva Richard Caring-style, with suitcases full of dosh and no questions asked, may be drawing to a close.

Vital Statistics

International symbol: CHF

Interest rate: -0.75%

Proportion of daily total forex trading: 6.4%

All figures 2013

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