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Financial storm leaves economy reeling

(Reuters)

As the winter takes grip in Switzerland the chill can also be felt in companies, financial institutions and the economy as a whole following a stormy year.

After years of growth, economists are predicting a recession as huge banking losses and a strong franc affect businesses, exports, jobs and consumer spending. The only question is how hard and long it will be.

The start of the malaise could be detected at the end of 2007 when Switzerland's largest banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, blew the walls down on their traditional conservative image by announcing that they had followed the global pack by piling money into risky subprime investments.

By December of this year, UBS had been forced to write down some $44 billion (SFr51 billion) and Credit Suisse more than $10 billion. Both slashed thousands of jobs while UBS added chairman Marcel Ospel to the list of departed executives.

Ospel and other former banking executives were pressured into handing back millions of dollars in performance related pay following a national and international outcry against bonuses and greed.

Pierre Mirabaud, chairman of the Swiss Bankers Association, described the year as an "annus horribilis" during a speech in September.

But worse was to follow, forcing the Swiss National Bank (SNB) to announce a $60 billion bailout package for UBS and for Credit Suisse to take on SFr10 billion in emergency funding from Qatar.

Emergency measures

The SNB joined other central banks in pumping billions of francs into the market as credit dried up.

It also embarked on a series of interest rate cuts to bring the cost of borrowing down 225 basis points in three months. In December, the three-month Libor range stood at 0-1 per cent – the lowest since 2000.

The Bank's job was not made any easier by inflationary fears in the middle of the year as the price of raw materials and energy soared. Inflation hit an 18-year high of 3.1 per cent in June before falling in the latter half of 2008.

These measures were taken not just to prop up the banking system, but also to relieve the real economy as the financial fall-out started to hit industry.

Some sectors were still performing well by the end of 2008. Food giant Nestlé posted record sales of SFr81.4 billion in October. Swatch Group started the year with record results and sales were up in the second half even if profits were slightly down.

In the pharmaceutical sector, Novartis also unveiled healthy figures while Roche continued to make acquisitions. The luxury goods industry and tourism are cautiously optimistic about the future.

Shares tumble

But the construction, car component, chemicals, metals, electronics, manufacturing and machinery industries all displayed signs of stress, not helped by an appreciating Swiss franc that is expected to hit exports.

The franc soared to SFr1.43 against the euro and hit parity with the dollar as investors took shelter with the safe haven currency.

The stock market also took a battering as panicky investors dumped shares and put their cash under the mattress.

The Swiss Market Index (SMI) of leading firms lost more than a third of its value in 2008, falling from nearly 9,000 points to under 5,000 between the end of 2007 and November this year.

The free fall has wiped some SFr300 billion from share value in the index. Financial stocks were worst hit, with UBS losing at one point some 80 per cent in value from 2007 highs and Credit Suisse shares falling by well over half from their peak.

Cantonal retail banks, with total savings guarantees, and small private banks were the main beneficiaries as people moved their savings to safer territory. The government also weighed in by increasing the state guarantee of savings from SFr30,000 to SFr100,000.

Tax probe

But the problems for two big banks mounted up in 2008 with a tax evasion investigation forcing UBS to end offshore activities in the United States as a top executive was indicted for allegedly helping clients dodge taxes. There are rumours that the probe will be extended to Credit Suisse.

The investigation has also put banking secrecy under greater pressure, with the US demanding access to details of suspected tax cheats.

Germany and France have stepped up calls for Switzerland to clean up its act as a tax haven.

This winter may be a long one in Switzerland with nobody knowing when the thaw will start and economic fortunes will revive.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

How the events unfolded

The year began ominously for the financial sector with Switzerland's largest bank, UBS, announcing subprime writedowns and emergency funding measures at the end of 2007. Other Swiss institutions also appeared to have caught the subprime bug.

In the industrial sector, energy infrastructure specialists ABB jolted the market by announcing the surprise departure of chief executive Fred Kindle, sparking rumours of a rift with new chairman Hubertus von Grünberg.

In April, UBS chairman Marcel Ospel joined a growing list of top managers to leave the bank as its losses mounted. He was replaced by the bank's legal expert Peter Kurer.

In June, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) kept interest rates unchanged as rising energy costs pushed inflation to worrying levels. A month later they peaked at 3.1% - the highest in 15 years.

An ongoing US tax evasion probe into UBS heated up when a former employee agreed to spill the beans about the bank's practices. In July, top UBS executives told a Senate hearing that the bank would cease offshore activities in the US. The US authorities demanded access to client records protected by banking secrecy.

Surveys showed consumer confidence dipping by the end of the summer, but businesses and economists were still confident of growth in 2009, albeit at a slower pace. Some industrial sectors were issuing profit warnings as orders began to dry up.

The SNB kept interest rates on hold again in September before reversing the policy with cuts in October, November and December, bringing the Libor range down to 0-1%. The central bank also started to pump money into the financial markets to solve the credit freeze.

The financial turbulence in September resulted in a $60 billion SNB bailout plan for UBS the following month. The bank later revamped its much criticised bonus system and clawed back millions of francs in bonus payments from failed former executives.

The Swiss government announced a SFr1.5 billion spending package in November to help stimulate the economy. Switzerland was now facing a recession, according to some economists.

The Swiss franc gained in value during the autumn as investors moved their wealth to the safe haven currency. The SNB attempted to halt the rise in order to protect Swiss exports. By the end of the year Switzerland, like the rest of the world, was bracing itself for a recession.

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