Switzerland pays price for fiscal sanity

August 5, 2011 - 12:28 PM
Switzerland Strong Franc

A display in the stock exchange in Zurich, Switzerland, shows the Euro-Swiss Franc currency rate starting at a new record low and moving slightly upwards, Friday, Aug. 8, 2011.Swiss lawmakers, trade unions and economists are calling for fresh steps to stop the country's currency from rising further against the U.S. dollar and the euro. The Swiss National Bank's announcement Wednesday that it would lower interest rates and pump money into the economy have so far failed to stem the flight of investors into the Swiss franc. On Friday it hovered at record levels against the dollar and euro, heightening fears that Switzerland's export and tourism industry will buckle under the weight of the strong franc. (AP Photo/Keystone, Steffen Schmidt) GERMANY PUT - AUSTRIA OUT

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland has a balanced budget, low unemployment and a strong currency.

On the face of things, the pristine Alpine nation has much to be proud of amid the economic turmoil in surrounding Europe and the United States.

But as investors rush to trade U.S. dollars and euros for Swiss francs, sending the currency to record highs in recent weeks, Switzerland's enviable economic record has become a heavy burden.

On Friday, lawmakers, trade unions and economists called for emergency measures to prevent mass layoffs in Switzerland's export, retail and tourism industries. All have suffered badly from the franc's surge.

"The strong franc is causing enormous damage to our economy," said Peter Lauener of Switzerland's trade union federation SGB. "The Swiss National Bank has no choice but to set an upper limit on the value of the franc if we don't want to risk tens of thousands of jobs," he said.

Corrado Pardini, a lawmaker with the Social Democratic Party, said Switzerland had to react to the economic jitters of its euro zone trading partners, even if their woes weren't its fault.

"The fact is we're not an island. The situation in Europe has changed dramatically in recent years so we can't operate with the politics of the past," he said. Pardini said flooding the market with francs would ease the pressure on workers and companies alike, painful though it would be for the Swiss National Bank's monetary hawks.

The appeals followed a failed SNB attempt Wednesday to deter investors by lowering the country's already feeble interest rate target to near zero and opening the taps for commercial banks to increase their overdrafts — effectively printing free money in a bid to make the franc less attractive.

"Obviously, this measure was not sufficient," said Tobias Straumann, who teaches financial history at the University of Zurich.

About 10 percent of Switzerland's work force depends directly on exports, whose value in francs is sinking in line with the dollar and euro. These include the watchmakers, chemical manufacturers and engineering companies that form the bedrock of Swiss industry. Employers have already laid off some workers, imposed longer working hours on others and even suggested paying salaries in euros — a proposal unions strongly rejected.

Two days after they were announced, the SNB's efforts to weaken the franc were showing little effect. The dollar dipped under 0.77 francs Friday, while the euro remained stubbornly below 1.10 francs — about 20 percent higher than a year ago.

"We're watching the development of the euro with concern," said Jean-Francois Andrist, president of a small railway museum in Blonay-Chamby near Lake Geneva. Over half the museum's summer visitors come from abroad, mostly from the euro zone, Andrist said.

"It's definitely going to be difficult for Switzerland and Swiss tourism in the next few years," he said. "Prices are simply cheaper in Germany and elsewhere."

SNB President Philipp Hildebrand said the bank wouldn't sit idly by if the franc continues to rise. Wednesday's measures, he told Neue Zuercher Zeitung in an interview published Friday, "aren't meant to be symbolic, but a signal."

But experts such as Straumann say markets are so spooked by Europe's failure to stabilize the euro and the poor U.S. recovery, that only drastic action will make investors dump the franc. This could take the form of a clear commitment by the SNB to buy however many dollars and euros it takes to push down the franc's value against those two currencies.

The risk would be a rise in inflation, something the central bank has a stubborn record of avoiding in recent years.

"You have to appear to be completely nuts, then people start to believe you're serious," Straumann said. "If we were Zimbabwe then everyone would believe us, but we're Switzerland."