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The business week in Switzerland

The first complete trading week of the year showed the Swiss economy to be in good health, despite fears that a sudden slowdown in the United States might harm Swiss growth prospects.

The government's unemployment figures on Tuesday revealed a slight rise in the jobless rate in December to 1.9 per cent, compared to 1.8 per cent the previous month.

However, the rise is attributed to seasonal factors and the authorities are forecasting an average unemployment rate of 1.8 per cent for 2001 as a whole.

Signs of a slowdown were revealed by the figures for retail sales in November, which were down 3.3 per cent compared to the same month in 1999. It was the second consecutive monthly drop in sales.

Taken as a whole, the year 2000 was one of the most successful for a decade. Government figures showed Gross Domestic Product was up by 3.3 per cent in real terms, the highest rate since 1990.

Exports also reflected the strong growth at home and abroad. Exports to Switzerland's most important markets grew by eight per cent and are forecast to continue expanding, albeit more slowly, in 2001.

On the corporate front, the reinsurance giant Swiss Re, said claims had fallen sharply last year compared to 1999, despite the floods in central Europe and Asia.

In a preliminary report released on Wednesday, the company said it had paid out SFr18 billion in 2000. That was significantly less than the record SFr50 billion Swiss Re had to spend on claims the previous year.

Switzerland's biggest retail chain, Migros, reported a three per cent increase in sales in 2000, to SFr13 billion.

After several years of stagnant turnover, Migros said it was satisfied with the performance, although the figure is below the average of 4.5 per cent for the industry.

Holderbank put a brave face on the loss of its position as the world leader in the cement sector, after the French group, Lafarge, announced plans to buy Britain's Blue Circle.

Holderbank wished the new venture well and reiterated its commitment to focusing on emerging markets.

In the telecommunications sector, the government on Monday asked for urgent clarification of reports of a secret agreement between Tele Danmark and Deutsche Telekom in the run-up to the auction of Switzerland's third generation mobile phone licences.

Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile subsidiary withdrew from the bidding just three days before the auction was due to begin in November. Two days later, Tele Danmark acquired majority stakes in two Swiss bidders, diAx and Sunrise, and then announced plans to merge them.

Reports say Deutsche Telekom could be planning to acquire a stake in Tele Danmark. If the federal authorities find there is any truth to allegations of collusion between the two operators, diAx is in danger of losing its Swiss UMTS licence.

by Tom O'Brien

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