Switzerland monetary policy since 2008: From one crisis to another

A spirited speech by Thomas J. Jordan, Chairman of the Governing Board of Swiss National Bank. He defends the policy of the central bank since 2008 which has moved from one crisis to another:

Ladies and Gentlemen, the global financial and economic crisis broke out eleven years ago,  and was followed by a marked decline in economic output and inflation. At that time, the SNB had to switch to an expansionary monetary policy stance in order to fulfil its mandate. We initially responded with conventional measures, and quickly lowered interest rates to virtually zero.

The global financial crisis was swiftly followed by the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area. The attendant uncertainty on the financial markets bolstered demand for the Swiss franc as a safe haven, thus putting appreciation pressure on our currency. To counter these upward forces, we had no option but to resort to unconventional means. We intervened on the foreign exchange market, and in September 2011 introduced a minimum exchange rate against the
euro.

From mid-2014 onwards, the international monetary policy environment began to change. On the one hand there were increasingly clearer signs that the US was about to adopt a tightening stance, whereas in the euro area a loosening of monetary policy was becoming more and more
likely. The euro subsequently depreciated markedly against the major currencies. As a result, by the beginning of 2015 the minimum exchange rate was no longer sustainable. To retain control over our monetary policy, we therefore decided in January 2015 to change tack. 

In that exceptional situation, we had to weigh up the pros and cons of using alternative unconventional instruments. It became apparent that we would have to lower interest rates below zero given that various other central banks had already done so. This was the only way we could limit the appeal of the Swiss franc. When we discontinued the minimum exchange rate, we thus also imposed negative interest of –0.75% on banks’ sight deposits held at the
SNB.

This then brought the level of interest rates in Switzerland back down below that in other countries. Coupled with our willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market as necessary, the negative interest rate has taken the pressure off the Swiss franc and prevented a sharp drop in inflation.

Pros and cons of negative policy rates:

What would happen if we were to simply stop charging negative interest in the current environment?

Dispensing with the negative interest rate would have a substantial impact on the Swiss economy. Swiss short-term interest rates would again be higher than in other countries, which would clearly increase the attractiveness of Swiss franc investments. This is turn would cause the franc to appreciate, which would be detrimental to economic momentum in Switzerland and would see unemployment rise and inflation pushed into negative territory.

If we stopped charging negative interest, would that at least be beneficial for savers, pension funds, life insurers and banks? The marked weakening in the economy would cast a pall over the earnings prospects of Swiss companies, and Swiss equities would come under pressure.

Although short-term interest rates in Switzerland would no longer be negative, there would be little change in capital market interest rates owing to the deterioration in the economic outlook. All in all, the level of interest rates would thus remain low, and so too would the yields on long-term Swiss franc bonds. Ultimately, there would be scarcely any significant improvement for savers, pension funds, life insurers and banks.

The same goes for the real estate market. Although its momentum would be curbed somewhat if we were to cease charging negative interest, there would be little change in the low level of interest rates and the impact would therefore be limited. In the current situation, the risks to financial stability must be addressed with focused macroprudential measures. This will then curb demand for mortgages and real estate and strengthen banks’ resilience.

Ladies and Gentlemen, abandoning the negative interest rate in the current environment would weigh heavily on the Swiss economy. This would not help either savers or pensionfunds, nor would it be beneficial for financial stability. In other words, as things stand at present, removing the negative interest rate would not be in the interests of our country as a whole.

The critics of central banking will tell you that it is the very SNB interventions which have led to these problems at the first place.

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