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July 1, 2013

Swiss National Bank: Intervention Back on the Table – Will the Franc Rise above €1.50?

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 2:46 pm

Pull up a 1-year chart of the Euro against the Swiss Franc, and you’ll quickly notice a salient trend: the exchange rate has hovered slightly above €1.50 since last March, with three notable deviations. The first occurred last March, when the Swiss National Bank (SNB) intervened in currency markets on behalf of the Swiss Franc, causing the Franc to shoot up instantly by more than 5%. The second took place in June, when the SNB threatened (it may or may not have actually intervened) intervention again, and the Franc shot up in order to create a buffer zone. The final deviation can be seen at the end of December, when a generalized decline of the Euro also manifested itself against the Swiss Franc, as it fell significantly below the €1.50 threshold.

Euro - Swiss Franc 2009 -2010
It’s not clear whether €1.50 was ever conveyed by the Swiss National Bank explicitly, or whether it was merely accepted implicitly by the forex markets. Regardless, traders certainly respected this boundary, and for most of 2009, dared not challenge it. At the end of December, as I said, there were two important developments, which bore on the EUR/CHF cross. First, credit downgrades and the (far-off) prospect of sovereign default in the EU set loose a wave of panic, after which the Euro has generally fallen. The second development was a subtle change in the wording of the SNB’s forex policy. Previously, it had promised to prevent any “appreciation” in the Swiss Franc, whereas now it is only interested in stopping an “excessive” appreciation.

It’s not clear whether the Swiss Franc suddenly blasted through the €1.50 because investors believe(d) it was undervalued, or if instead it merely got caught up in the Euro’s weakness. Perhaps, investors realized that now they had an excuse to sell the Euro and no longer had to worry about whether actually doing so would risk provoking the SNB. It was probably a combination of both.

For its part, the SNB (through its President and chief mouthpiece Philipp Hildebrand) is already sending subtle clues to the forex markets about the Franc’s prospects. Hildebrand recently told reporters both that “Raising interest rates would be inappropriate,” and “Since the recovery is still fragile, the current expansionary monetary stance will need to be maintained until the recovery strengthens and deflationary pressures recede.” In other words, those that bet on Franc’s appreciation shouldn’t expect any return on their investment, in the form of higher interest rates.

He also reiterated the SNB’s stance on the Franc more explicitly: “Our policy is clear: we will resolutely prevent an excessive appreciation as long as there are deflationary risks.” Given that the markets called his bluff in December, investors are unfazed: “The difference in the number of wagers by hedge funds and other large speculators on an advance in the franc compared with those on a drop, so-called net longs, was 13,926 on Jan. 12 compared with net shorts of 2,780 a week earlier.”

In all likelihood, the Franc will continue to hover around €1.50, only below that barrier, rather than above it. As long as the Franc remains basically stable, either in literally not moving, or in appreciating at a snail’s pace, the SNB probably won’t get involved. After all, the change in wording to its forex policy is a tacit admission that €1.50 is arbitrary and that perhaps the Franc could stand to gain a little bit, especially in the context of the EU fiscal issues. Not to mention that intervention is expensive and ineffective in the long-term.

If traders really get ahead of themselves, though, Hildebrand has already proven that he’s not afraid to act.

http://www.forexblog.org/2009/03/swiss-bank-fulfills-promise-of-forex-intervention-franc-collapses.html

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June 30, 2013

Swiss Franc Surges to Record High: Where was the SNB? Will it Intervene Again?

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , , , — admin @ 2:46 pm
One of the clear victors of the Greek sovereign debt crisis has been the Swiss Franc, which has risen 5% against the Euro over the last quarter en route to a record high. 5% may not sound like much until you consider that the Franc had hovered around the €1.50 for most of 2009. Every time it budged from that mark, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) moved swiftly to return the Franc to its “resting spot.” So where was the SNB this time around?
Swiss Franc Euro chart
 
Beginning last March, the SNB was an active player in forex markets: “Quarterly figures indicate the central bank spent some 4 billion euros worth of francs in March, 12 billion in the second quarter, some 700 million euros in the third quarter, and some 4 billion in the fourth.” In fact, the SNB might still be intervening, and it won’t be until 2010 Q1 data is released that we will be able to say for sure. The Franc’s rise has certainly been steep, but who’s to stay that it couldn’t have been even steeper. For comparative purposes, consider that the US Dollar has risen more than 10% against the Euro over this same time period.
 
But the fact remains that the “line in the sand” was broken and the Swiss Franc touched an all-time high of €1.43. According to SNB Chairman Philipp Hildebrand, “We have a broad range of means to prevent an excessive appreciation and we are going to do this to ensure that the recovery can continue. The instruments are clear: We buy foreign currencies. We can do that in very large quantities.” In other words, he is sticking to the official line, that the SNB forex policy has not yet been abandoned. On the other hand, “SNB directorate member Jean-Pierre Danthine said Swiss companies and households should prepare for a market-driven exchange rate some time in the future.”
 
Actually, I don’t think these two statements are necessarily contradictory. The Franc is rising against the Euro for reasons that have less to do with the Franc and more to do with the Euro. At this point, if the SNB continued to stick to its line in the sand, it would look almost illogical, especially since by some measures, the Swiss Franc is already the world’s most manipulated currency. Besides, by all accounts, the interventionist policy has been a smashing success. The forex markets were cowed into submission for almost a year, which prevented the Swiss economy from contracting more and probably paved the way for recovery. 2009 GDP growth is estimated at -1.5% with 2010 growth projected at 1.5%.
 
By its own admission, the SNB did not target currency intervention as an end in itself. “If you want to assess the success, then you should not only look at a certain exchange rate, but look at the success of the Swiss economy.” Rather, its goal was monetary in nature. Since, it cut rates to nil very early on, the only other way it could tighten is by holding down the value of the Franc. Along these lines, the SNB will continue to use the Franc as a proxy for conducting monetary policy: “An excessive appreciation is if deflation risks were to materialise. We will not allow this to happen.”
 
Going forward then, it seems the Franc will continue to appreciate. “I think the marketwill cautiously continue to sell the euro against the Swiss franc and perhaps see whether the SNB will step in and try and stop the Swiss franc strength,” said one analyst. As long as the Swiss economy continues to expand and deflation remains at bay, there is little reason for the SNB to continue. Besides, intervention is not cheap, as the SNB’s forex reserves grew by more than 100% in 2009. On the other hand, the SNB has probably intervened in forex markets on 100 separate occasions over the last two decades, which means that it won’t be shy about stepping back in if need be.

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June 29, 2013

SNB Abandons Intervention as Franc Rises to Record High Against Euro.

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , , , , — admin @ 2:46 pm

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has apparently admitted (temporary) defeat in its battle to hold down the value of the Franc. ” ‘The SNB has reached its limits and if the market wants to see a franc at 1.35 versus the euro, they won’t be able to stop it.’ ” The markets have won. The SNB has lost.

SNB Franc Intervention Chart - 2009-2010
Still, the SNB should be applauded for its efforts. As you can see from the chart above, it managed to keep the Franc from rising above €1.50 (its so-called line in the sand) for the better part of 2009. Furthermore, by most accounts, it managed to slow the Franc’s unavoidable descent against the Euro in 2010. While the Dollar has appreciated more than 15% against the Euro, the Franc has a risen by a more modest 10%. ” ‘Without that €90 billion [intervention], it’s fair to say that the euro would be closer to $1.10,’ ” argued one analyst. In fact, as recently as May 18, the SNB manifested its power in the form of 1-day, 2% decline in the Franc, its sharpest fall in more than a year.

Overall, the SNB has spent more than $200 Billion over the last 12 months, including $73 Billion in the month of May alone. ” ‘To put the figures in perspective, there have been only two months when China, the world’s largest holder of forex reserves with $2,249bn in assets, saw its reserves increase more.’ ” The SNB now claims the world’s 7th largest foreign exchange reserves, ahead of the perennial interveners of Brazil in Hong Kong, the latter of whose currency is pegged against the Dollar.

Swiss SNB Forex Reserves - Intervention
While the SNB can take some credit for halting the decline in the Franc, it was ultimately done in by factors beyond its control, namely the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis and consequent surge in risk aversion. At this point the forces that the SNB is battling against are too large to be contained: “We’re talking about a massive euro crisis, so no single central bank can prop it up on its own,” summarized one trader. As a result, the Franc is now rising to a fresh record high against the Euro nearly every trading session.

Still, the SNB remains committed to rhetorical intervention. “The central bank has a ‘clear aim‘ to maintain price stability and this is what guides its policy actions, SNB President Philipp Hildebrand said…The bank will act in a ‘decisive manner if needed.’ ” That means that if economic growth slows and/or deflation sets it, it may have to restart the printing presses. Given that its economy is slated to grow at a solid 1.5% this year, unemployment is a meager 3.8%, and the threat of inflation has largely abated. On the other hand, the prospect of a drawn-out crisis in the EU means the Franc will probably continue to appreciate – without help from the Central Bank: ” ‘The SNB may continue to intervene in the currency markets until 2020,’ ” declared the head of forex research for UBS.

The implications for currency markets are interesting. Not only has the SNB prevented the Euro from falling too fast against the Franc, but it may also have prevented it from falling too quickly against other currencies. ” ‘To suggest that the SNB has been the savior of the euro is too much. But one could imagine that if the euro starts to decline again, the market may blame the fact that the SNB isn’t buying,’ ” said a currency strategist from Standard Bank.

This episode is also a testament to the limits of intervention. It has always been clear (to this blogger, at least) that intervention is futile in the long-term. The best that a Central Bank can hope for is to stall a particular outcome long enough in order to achieve a certain short-term policy aim. When enough momentum coalesces behind a (floating) currency, there is nothing that a Central Bank can do to stop it from moving to the rate that investors collectively deem it to be worth.

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June 28, 2013

Swiss Franc Touches Record High, Nears Parity. Will this surge continue?

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 2:45 pm

In the year-to-date, the Swiss Franc has risen 3% against the Dollar, 15% against the Euro, and more than 5% on a trade-weighted basis. It recently touched a record low against the Euro, and is closing in on parity with the USD. Since the beginning of the summer, the Franc has rallied by an unbelievable 15% against the Greenback. I don’t think I’m alone in scratching my head in bewilderment wondering, What could possibly be behind the Franc’s rise?

CHF USD Chart

By this point, everyone is familiar with the safe-haven phenomenon. Basically, concerns of a double-dip recession have ignited a flare-up in risk aversion and spurred investors to shift capital into locales and investment vehicles that are perceived as less risky. Switzerland and by extension the Swiss Franc, have both benefited from this phenomenon: “Anxious investors searching for a haven from fears about the health of Europe’s banks, which knocked equities and sent peripheral eurozone government bond spreads higher, dumped the single currency. The Swiss franc benefited.” Enough said.

At the same time, the Dollar and Japanese Yen are also considered safe-haven currencies, and as you can see from the chart below, the three have hardly traded in lockstep. In other words, there must be something distinguishing the Franc. Economists point to a strong economy: “Gross domestic product rose 0.9 percent from the first quarter, when it increased 1 percent. ‘The underlying economics of Switzerland are very, very healthy. Concerns about deflation have subsided.’ ” The consensus is that the Swiss economy will expand by close to 2% on the year. However, this is hardly impressive, especially compared to other industrialized countries. In addition, Swiss interest rates remain low, which means the opportunity cost of holding the Franc is high. There must be something else going on.

CHF USD EUR JPY 2010
In fact, it looks like the Swiss Franc’s rise is kind of self-fulfilling. For most of 2009, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) spent nearly $200 Billion to artificially hold down the value of the Franc. During this period, the Franc remained stable against the Euro and depreciated against the Dollar and Yen. Having finally broken through the “line in the sand” of €1.50, however, the Franc is now appreciating rapidly. Why? Because the SNB no longer has any credibility. It lost $15 Billion (due to the Euro depreciation) trying to defend the Franc, and in hindsight, the mission was a complete waste of time. As a result, a fresh round of intervention is out of the question. The currency markets have also dismissed the possibility of new intervention, and it seems they are punishing the SNB (via the Franc) for even trying.

According to analysts, the markets have also come to see the Franc as a reincarnation of the Deutschmark, due to its “strong economy, massive foreign reserves, traditional haven status and close links with the German economy.” Those that fear a Eurozone collapse and/or want to make exclusive bets on Germany are now using the Franc as a proxy. I don’t personally understand the logic behind this strategy, but where perception is reality, it’s more important to understand that other investors see the connection rather than seeing the connection for oneself.

Going forward, there is mixed sentiment surrounding the Franc. One analyst warned clients, “I would be cautious about chasing it too far in the short term. There’s still a huge number of headwinds out there.” According to another analyst, “We expect the franc to remain strong throughout the decade.” Personally, I’m inclined to side with the former point of view. From a fundamental standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot to keep the Franc moving up and its recent surge is probably running on fumes. At the very least, I would expect a correction in the near-term.

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June 27, 2013

Swiss Franc at Record Highs. Will it Rise Further Against the Euro or the Dollar?

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , , , , , — admin @ 2:50 pm

This month, the Swiss Franc touched a record high against not one, but two currencies: the US dollar and the Euro. Having risen by more than 30% against the former and 20% against the latter, the franc might just be the world’s best performing currency over the last twelve months. Let’s look at the prospects for continued appreciation.


As I wrote on Monday, the Swiss Franc has been one of the primary beneficiaries of the safe haven trade. With each spike in volatility, the Swiss Franc has ticked upward. Due to monetary and fiscal stability as well as political conservatism, investors have flocked to the Franc in times of crisis. Of course, the Japanese Yen (and the US dollar, of late) has also received a boost from this phenomenon, but to a lesser extent than the franc, as you can see from the chart above.

Personally, I wonder if this isn’t because the Swiss economy is significantly smaller than that of Japan and the US. In other words, its capacity to absorb risk-averse capital inflows is much smaller than that of Japan and the US. For example, the impact of one million people suddenly rushing out to buy shares in IBM stock would have a much smaller impact on its share price compared to a sudden speculative flood into FXCM. The same can be said about the franc, relative to the dollar and yen.

Ironically, the franc is also rising because of regional proximity to the eurozone. I use the term ironic to denote in order to signify that the franc is not being buoyed by positive association with the euro but rather because of contradistinction. In other words, each time there is another flareup in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, the franc typically experiences the biggest bounce because it is the easiest currency to compare with the euro. In some ways, it is basically just a more secure version of the euro. This phenomenon has intensified over the last month, as the euro faces perhaps its most uncertain test yet.

It is curious that even as investors have gradually become more inclined to take risk, that not only has the franc held its value, but it has actually surged! Perhaps this is because it is expected that the Swiss National Bank (SNB) will soon hike interest rates, making the franc both high-yielding and secure. To be sure, some analysts think that the SNB will hike as soon as June. The fact the the economy has continued to expand and exports have surged in spite of the strong franc only seems to support this notion.


On the other hand, inflation is still basically nil. And just because the Swiss economy can withstand an interest rate hike hardly provides adequate justification for implementing one. Besides, the SNB hardly wants to give the markets further cause to buy the franc. If anything, it may even need to intervene verbally to make sure that it doesn’t rise any higher. Thus, “The median forecast among economists is for a rate increase in September.”

In short, I think the franc is overbought against the dollar. In fact, you can see from the most recent Commitment of Traders data that speculators have been net long the franc for almost an entire year, and it seems inevitable that this will need to reverse itself. On the other hand, the franc probably has more room to rise against the euro. The takeaway here is that it is less important to know where you stand on the franc in general and more important to understand the cross currency.

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Swiss Franc is the Only Safe Haven Currency. The Franc is Starting to Distance Itself from the Dollar and Yen.

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 2:45 pm

According to conventional market wisdom, there are three safe haven currencies: the Swiss Franc, Japanese Yen, and US Dollar. It is to these currencies that investors flock whenever there is a crisis, or merely an outbreak of uncertainty, and for much of the period following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the three were closely correlated. As you can see from the chart below, however, one of these currencies has begun to distinguish itself from the other two, leading some to argue that there is now only one true safe haven currency: the Swiss Franc.


What’s not to like about the Franc? It boasts a strong economy, low inflation, and low unemployment. Unlike the US and Japan, Switzerland is not plagued by a high national debt and perennial budget deficits. Its monetary policy has been extremely conservative: no quantitative easing, asset-purchases, or any other money printing programs with euphemistic names.

Ironically, the only thing that makes investors nervous about the franc is that it has already risen so much. Remember when it reached the milestone of parity against the dollar in 2010? Since then, it has appreciated by an additional 20%, and seems to breach a new record on an almost weekly basis. The same goes for the CHF/EUR and CHF/JPY. The President of Switzerland’s export association is expecting further gains: “Parity is a realistic scenario. Given the indebtedness of the eurozone and the strong attraction of the franc, the euro is likely to continue to lose value.”


Given that Swiss exports have surged in spite of (or even because of) the rising Franc, however, he has very little to worry about at the moment. As you can see fromt he graphic below (courtesy of the Financial Times), the balance of trade continues to expand, and has exploded in a handful of key sectors. To be sure, economists expect that this situation will eventually correct itself and are already moving to revise downward 2011 and 2012 GDP growth estimates. Then again, they made the same erroneous predictions in 2010.

The main variable in the Swiss Franc is the Swiss National Bank (SNB). Having booked a loss of CHF 20 Billion from failed intervention in 2010, the SNB is not in a position to make the same mistake again. In fact, SNB President Philipp Hildebrand has not even stooped to verbal intervention this time around, undoubtedly cognizant of the fact that he has very little credibility in forex markets.

At the same time, the SNB is not in any hurry to raise interest rates, lest it stoke further speculative interest in the Franc. Its June meeting came and went without any indication of when it might tighten. Interest rate futures currently reflect an expectation that the first rate hike won’t come until March 2012. Thus, the downside of holding the Franc is that it will continue to pay a negative real interest rate. The only upside, then, is the possibility of further appreciation. Fortunately, the SNB is unlikely to stop the Franc from rising, since it serves the same monetary end as higher interest rates. In other words, a more valuable Franc serves as a direct check on inflation because it lowers the cost of commodity imports and should (eventually) soften demand for Swiss exports.

It is possible that the Swiss Franc will suffer a correction at some point, if only because it rose by such a large margin in such a short period of time. On the other hand, given that its economy has proved its ability to withstand the Franc’s appreciation, it’s no wonder that investors continue to bet on its rise.

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June 24, 2011

Swiss Franc is the Only Safe Haven Currency

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , , — admin @ 2:45 pm

According to conventional market wisdom, there are three safe haven currencies: the Swiss Franc, Japanese Yen, and US Dollar. It is to these currencies that investors flock whenever there is a crisis, or merely an outbreak of uncertainty, and for much of the period following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the three were closely correlated. As you can see from the chart below, however, one of these currencies has begun to distinguish itself from the other two, leading some to argue that there is now only one true safe haven currency: the Swiss Franc.


What’s not to like about the Franc? It boasts a strong economy, low inflation, and low unemployment. Unlike the US and Japan, Switzerland is not plagued by a high national debt and perennial budget deficits. Its monetary policy has been extremely conservative: no quantitative easing, asset-purchases, or any other money printing programs with euphemistic names.

Ironically, the only thing that makes investors nervous about the franc is that it has already risen so much. Remember when it reached the milestone of parity against the dollar in 2010? Since then, it has appreciated by an additional 20%, and seems to breach a new record on an almost weekly basis. The same goes for the CHF/EUR and CHF/JPY. The President of Switzerland’s export association is expecting further gains: “Parity is a realistic scenario. Given the indebtedness of the eurozone and the strong attraction of the franc, the euro is likely to continue to lose value.”


Given that Swiss exports have surged in spite of (or even because of) the rising Franc, however, he has very little to worry about at the moment. As you can see fromt he graphic below (courtesy of the Financial Times), the balance of trade continues to expand, and has exploded in a handful of key sectors. To be sure, economists expect that this situation will eventually correct itself and are already moving to revise downward 2011 and 2012 GDP growth estimates. Then again, they made the same erroneous predictions in 2010.

The main variable in the Swiss Franc is the Swiss National Bank (SNB). Having booked a loss of CHF 20 Billion from failed intervention in 2010, the SNB is not in a position to make the same mistake again. In fact, SNB President Philipp Hildebrand has not even stooped to verbal intervention this time around, undoubtedly cognizant of the fact that he has very little credibility in forex markets.

At the same time, the SNB is not in any hurry to raise interest rates, lest it stoke further speculative interest in the Franc. Its June meeting came and went without any indication of when it might tighten. Interest rate futures currently reflect an expectation that the first rate hike won’t come until March 2012. Thus, the downside of holding the Franc is that it will continue to pay a negative real interest rate. The only upside, then, is the possibility of further appreciation. Fortunately, the SNB is unlikely to stop the Franc from rising, since it serves the same monetary end as higher interest rates. In other words, a more valuable Franc serves as a direct check on inflation because it lowers the cost of commodity imports and should (eventually) soften demand for Swiss exports.

It is possible that the Swiss Franc will suffer a correction at some point, if only because it rose by such a large margin in such a short period of time. On the other hand, given that its economy has proved its ability to withstand the Franc’s appreciation, it’s no wonder that investors continue to bet on its rise.

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May 28, 2011

Swiss Franc at Record Highs

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , — admin @ 2:47 pm

This month, the Swiss Franc touched a record high against not one, but two currencies: the US dollar and the Euro. Having risen by more than 30% against the former and 20% against the latter, the franc might just be the world’s best performing currency over the last twelve months. Let’s look at the prospects for continued appreciation.


As I wrote on Monday, the Swiss Franc has been one of the primary beneficiaries of the safe haven trade. With each spike in volatility, the Swiss Franc has ticked upward. Due to monetary and fiscal stability as well as political conservatism, investors have flocked to the Franc in times of crisis. Of course, the Japanese Yen (and the US dollar, of late) has also received a boost from this phenomenon, but to a lesser extent than the franc, as you can see from the chart above.

Personally, I wonder if this isn’t because the Swiss economy is significantly smaller than that of Japan and the US. In other words, its capacity to absorb risk-averse capital inflows is much smaller than that of Japan and the US. For example, the impact of one million people suddenly rushing out to buy shares in IBM stock would have a much smaller impact on its share price compared to a sudden speculative flood into FXCM. The same can be said about the franc, relative to the dollar and yen.

Ironically, the franc is also rising because of regional proximity to the eurozone. I use the term ironic to denote in order to signify that the franc is not being buoyed by positive association with the euro but rather because of contradistinction. In other words, each time there is another flareup in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, the franc typically experiences the biggest bounce because it is the easiest currency to compare with the euro. In some ways, it is basically just a more secure version of the euro. This phenomenon has intensified over the last month, as the euro faces perhaps its most uncertain test yet.

It is curious that even as investors have gradually become more inclined to take risk, that not only has the franc held its value, but it has actually surged! Perhaps this is because it is expected that the Swiss National Bank (SNB) will soon hike interest rates, making the franc both high-yielding and secure. To be sure, some analysts think that the SNB will hike as soon as June. The fact the the economy has continued to expand and exports have surged in spite of the strong franc only seems to support this notion.


On the other hand, inflation is still basically nil. And just because the Swiss economy can withstand an interest rate hike hardly provides adequate justification for implementing one. Besides, the SNB hardly wants to give the markets further cause to buy the franc. If anything, it may even need to intervene verbally to make sure that it doesn’t rise any higher. Thus, “The median forecast among economists is for a rate increase in September.”

In short, I think the franc is overbought against the dollar. In fact, you can see from the most recent Commitment of Traders data that speculators have been net long the franc for almost an entire year, and it seems inevitable that this will need to reverse itself. On the other hand, the franc probably has more room to rise against the euro. The takeaway here is that it is less important to know where you stand on the franc in general and more important to understand the cross currency.

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February 6, 2011

Has the Swiss Franc Reached its Limit?

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , — admin @ 2:50 pm

The second half of 2010 witnessed a 20% rise in the Swiss Franc (against the US Dollar), which experienced an upswing more closely associated with equities than with currencies. It has managed to entrench itself well above parity with the Dollar, and has become a favored destination for investors looking for a safer alternative to the Euro. Still, there are reasons to wary, and it could be only a matter of time before the CHF bull market comes to a screeching halt.

The forces behind the Franc’s rise are easily identifiable. It basically comes down to risk aversion. While it can’t compete with the Dollar and Yen – its main safe haven rivals – in size and liquidity, it benefits from its perceived economic and fiscal stability, as well as through contradistinction with the surrounding Eurozone. In fact, the Franc’s rise against the Euro has been even steeper than its rise against the Dollar. As the Eurozone crisis radiates further away from Greece, Switzerland has come to seem more like an island in a sea of chaos.

Even an abatement in the EU storm has failed to produce a Swiss Franc correction. That could be because the bad news coming out of Europe seems to be never-ending; one country’s rescue is followed by the downgrade of another country’s sovereign credit rating and warning of imminent collapse. In addition, even as investors have embraced risk-taking, they still remain prone to sudden backtracking. Thus, the Franc has been one of the primary targets of risk-averse capital fleeing the Egyptian political turmoil.

Capital controls and intervention have scared investors away from some currencies, but the Swiss National Bank (SNB) lacks the credibility afforded to other Central Banks. The SNB lost $25 Billion in 2010 in a vain effort to hold down the Franc, and currency investors believe that it has neither the stomach nor the mandate to engage in a similar loss-making campaign in 2011. Besides, the Swiss economy has held up remarkably well, and the trade surplus has actually widened in the face of currency appreciation. The markets might be keen to test the limits of the Swiss export sector, in much the same way that they have challenged Japan by pushing up the Yen.


Still, their are limits to high the Franc can rise, and it appears that I’m no longer the only analyst who thinks it’s undervalued. Don’t forget- the Swiss economy is comparatively minuscule. Its capital markets can absorb only a small fraction of the inflows that the US and Japan can handle, and the Swiss Franc represents a mere 3.5% of all foreign exchange volume, 12 times less than the US Dollar’s share. In other words, it’s only a matter of time before investors run out of Swiss assets to buy, at which point they will have to decide whether to accept short-term returns of 0% in exchange for capital preservation and financial security. My bet is that they’ll walk.

Of course in the short-term, it’s possible that a handful of risk-averse investors will continue to steer capital towards Switzerland, and/or that another mini political or economic crisis will trigger a spike in risk-aversion. When investors once again look at fundamentals, they will be forced to reckon with the Franc’s 40% appreciation over the last five years, and probably conclude that perhaps it was a bit much…

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December 29, 2010

Swiss Franc Surges to Record High(s)

Filed under: Swiss Franc — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 2:46 pm

In the last two weeks, the Swiss Franc rose to record highs against not one, but two major currencies: the US Dollar and the Euro. The Franc is now entrenched well above parity against the former, and is closing in on the magical level of 1:1 against the latter. With market uncertainty projected to run well into 2011, continued strength in the Franc is all but assured.

usd CHF 2 Year Chart

The Franc’s rise is due entirely to its being perceived as a safe haven currency. Its debt levels are comparable to other industrialized countries, its economy is in mediocre shape, and interest rates are the lowest in the entire world (the overnight lending rate is a paltry .1%). Some analysts have cited the “strong Swiss economic outlook” and “the health of Swiss public finances” as two factors buttressing its strength, but make not mistake: if not for the tide of risk aversion sweeping through the world’s financial markets, the Franc would hardly be attracting any attention.

As I have reported recently, the Dollar and the Yen have also benefited from the spike of risk aversion caused by renewed concerns over the fiscal health of the EU and the prospect of conflict in Korea. Perhaps owning to nothing more than proximity, the Franc has been the primary beneficiary from EU sovereign debt crisis. “It appears that smart money investors are pre-emptively bailing funds out of the eurozone with Switzerland providing a safe port to ride out the eurozone sovereign debt storm that appears to loom on the horizon,” summarized one analyst.

Unfortunately, it looks like the situation in the EU can only become serious. Despite a collective move towards fiscal austerity, all of the problem countries are still running budget deficits. As a result, members of the EU are set to issue no less than €500 Billion of new debt in 2011. To make matters worse, “The onslaught of credit warnings and downgrades of sovereign ratings over the past few days added to worries that borrowing costs in many euro zone nations could rise further.” This could trigger a self-fulfilling descent towards default and further buoy the Franc.

EUR CHF 2 Year Chart
As far as I can tell, the notion that, “Despite the Swiss franc’s recent sharp gains, we still believe there is plenty of room for further upside ahead,” seems to encapsulate current market sentiment. According to the most recent Commitment of Traders Report, investors continue to increase their long positions in the Franc. According to Bloomberg News, “Options traders are more bullish on the franc for the next three months than any major currency except the yen.” Meanwhile, a sample of analysts’ forecasts suggests that the Franc could appreciate another 5% over the next six months.

At this point, the main variable the Swiss National Bank (SNB), which could resume intervention on behalf of the Franc. After spending close to €200 Billion to depress the Franc, the SNB accepted the futility of its efforts and formally renounced intervention in June. However, Swiss National Bank President Philipp Hildebrand recently referred to the Franc’s rise as a “burden,” and warned that the SNB “would take the measures necessary to ensure price stability” in the event of  “renewed financial market tensions.”

As to whether intervention is likely, analysts remain divided. “The timing [for intervention] would certainly be perfect, with liquidity very thin….pre-holiday markets are ideal for springing a surprise,” said one strategist. According to Morgan Stanley, however, the SNB is “unlikely to intervene in the near term to stem the rise in the franc. The previous intervention earlier this year has left a huge overhang of liquidity in the economy and the Swiss National Bank doesn’t want to further boost the money supply.” In addition, the SNB experienced losses of €22 Billion on its forex reserves in the first nine months of this year, and will be reluctant to incur further losses by resuming intervention.

In short, aside from this lone point of uncertainty, all factors point to continued upside.

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