In a bid to halt the rising value of the franc, the Swiss National Bank has reduced official interest rates by 50 basis points to a target range of 0-0.25 per cent.
The government welcomed the bank's action in a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon. Under pressure to combat the effects of the strong franc, the government had declined to take action on the grounds that monetry policy was a matter for the SNB.
It is the first time the SNB has lowered the interbank Libor rate since March 2009, and reflects growing pressure on the bank to act to counter the effects of the runaway franc on the Swiss economy.
In a news release announcing the move, the bank said it considered the franc to be “massively overvalued at present” and it was aiming for the three-month Libor at “as close to zero as possible”.
“The current strength of the Swiss franc is threatening the development of the economy and increasing the downside risks to price stability in Switzerland,” the SNB said, adding it would take further measures if necessary.
In addition to lowering interest rates, the bank said it would significantly increase the supply of francs to the money market over the next few days and would embark on a process to expand the bank’s sight deposits (immediately accessible deposits) by SFr50 billion ($64.35 billion).
Following the announcement on Wednesday, the euro jumped two per cent to SFr1.108, while the dollar rose 1.4 per cent to SFr0.7763.
The SNB action follows the strong appreciation of the franc against major currencies as the global economy has continued to falter this year.
The eurozone and the United States in particular have seen their currencies struggle under the combined weight of government debt and lacklustre economic growth.
On Monday, the Swiss franc achieved record highs against the dollar, British pound and the euro, with analysts increasingly worried the franc could reach parity with the euro in the near future.
In Switzerland, calls for action to counter the strong franc had become increasingly shrill with tourism workers and exporters feeling the heat.
The SNB said it had acted because the global economic outlook had worsened since its last policy assessment in June.
“At the same time the appreciation of the Swiss franc has accelerated sharply during the last few weeks. Consequently the outlook for the Swiss economy has deteriorated substantially,” the bank’s statement read.
Market analysts reacted positively, if somewhat cautiously, to the bank’s move, saying the SNB was sending a strong signal to financial markets.
“It is a strong gesture: the National Bank is doing something targeted,” said economist Janwillem Acket of Julius Bär. “You can’t keep the target rate on hold forever in this situation. This move makes absolute sense.”
Adrian Schmidt of Lloyds Banking Group said the measures would help to “calm down” the markets’ rush to buy up francs.
“The market had gone too far in one direction and it now has to think about whether it wants to hold the Swiss franc,” Schmidt said.
Swiss business groups and unions also welcomed the move by the bank, but called for further assistance to help businesses weather the effects of the strong franc.
In a press statement, the Association of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses called on the government to take urgent measures to support economic growth over the long term.
The Swiss Business Federation welcomed the SNB measures as sending "a strong signal" to the markets, but said longer-term measures were needed to increase the competitivity of the Swiss economy.
“This is wonderful,” said chief executive of Swatch Group Nick Hayek following the bank’s announcement. “Speculators should brace themselves.”
Questioning the impact of the move over the longer term, analysts suggested the SNB could again be forced to intervene in currency markets if the franc continued to appreciate.
Between 2009 and 2010, the SNB embarked on a massive campaign to buy up euros in an effort to stabilise the franc – a move that was heavily criticised for being ineffective and which resulted in heavy losses for the bank as the euro continued to depreciate.
“Currency intervention is now a potential threat once more,” said Schmidt.
“The SNB will be reluctant to intervene in the currency markets again… However maybe the threat of intervention will force people to look for other safe havens.”
Acket said the slowing of the Swiss economy could also help to reduce the attractiveness of the franc for investors.
“It remains to be seen how successful [the bank’s measures] will be as long as the market sees Switzerland as so much better off than the rest of the world,” Acket said.
Regarding the danger of parity with the euro, Acket said, “If the markets want that, they will test it”.
Franc on steroids
The Swiss franc is a so-called “safe haven” currency, which means that investors and speculators buy it when other currencies, including the euro and the dollar, are under pressure.
The franc has gained 25 per cent in value against the euro and the dollar over the past four years.
The Swiss National Bank has emphasised that it does not pursue an exchange rate target, but consistently bases its monetary policy on its legal mandate.
This mandate stipulates that “the SNB is required to ensure price stability, while taking due account of economic developments”.
Starting in March 2009 the SNB intervened in currency markets. But after pumping in 15 per cent of GDP in May 2010 to little effect as the Swiss franc surged during the first round of the Greek debt crisis, it dropped them in June 2010.
These forays led it to a loss of SFr21 billion last year, its biggest ever, and its chairman, Philipp Hildebrand, has faced calls to resign.end of infobox
SNB first-half loss
The SNB reported a consolidated loss of SFr10.8 billion ($13.5 billion) for the first half of 2011.
Losses on the bank’s foreign currency positions amounted to some SFr9.9 billion.
This was mainly due to exchange rate-related valuation losses of around SFr11.7 billion.
A year ago at this time, the bank recorded a much smaller loss of SFr2.78 billion.
The SNB result depends largely on developments in the gold, foreign exchange and capital markets. Because fluctuations are common, it is not possible to make accurate predictions for the rest of the year.
swissinfo.ch and agencies