Thursday, January 22, 2015
Deflation and the current economy, Part II - The Swiss Case
Today the other shoe dropped in that the European Central Bank announced its formal program for extraordinary measures to combat economic stagnation and the spectra of deflation. The size of the program, 60 Billion Euro per month for at least 18 months, should certainly impress the markets. Whether they will accomplish the goal, is another question. Again the central bankers are trying to inflate the economy to push back on levels of unemployment that are deemed to be too high. However, because they and so many "very smart people" are pushing further into an age of austerity the normal lever of fiscal policy is not being used in Europe.
While fiscal policy in the US is nothing to write home about it has been used a bit, whereas in Europe the concern over sovereign debt has lead governments to cut back worker pay and therefore standards of living. This contributes to the deflationary pressure in Europe which is spreading to other parts of the world. In part the Euro common currency is to blame. Since 19 European countries are part of a single currency, those that need a devaluation like Greece or Spain, could not get it because their partners included Germany which wanted to keep the currency stronger. The currency devaluation makes the countries (or zones) products less expensive and is designed to help balance trade through higher exports and lower imports. For countries that needed a rebalancing they were forced to internally devalue through lower wages, lower social benefits and higher taxes. Theoretically, this gets them to the same place but it requires sacrifices by specific members of society rather than the across the board cuts if a currency was revalued.
The shoe that dropped last week was Switzerland. The Swiss (not part of the EU or the Euro Zone) years ago pegged their currency to the Euro in order to maintain a stable exchange rate. The method of maintaining the peg involved going into the currency markets to purchase Euros and supplying Swiss Francs in order to bolster the value of the Euro, versus the Franc. This action resulted in that more or less stable rate that the Swiss banking authorities wanted but ballooned the balance sheet of the Swiss central bank as they accumulated more and more foreign currency. Last week, in the face of the effective devaluation of the Euro (QE and lower interest rates will decrease the value of the Euro versus other currencies) the Swiss gave up on the peg and let the currency rise to a market level. The change was a drop of over 20% (see the cliff graphic above).
The pressure for the rise in value of the Franc comes from the fact that Switzerland has been running persistent trade surpluses with the rest of the world for many years. Economic theory tells us that under this circumstance the country's currency should rise and that will make their products more expensive and exports will fall and imports rise (they can buy more from overseas) and the balance will be reestablished. This is great for economists but not so great for politicians as they have a hard time explaining to people their recessionary activities to create balanced international trade. But the Swiss are not going to get away free here as they were already facing deflationary pressure (their CPI peaked in 2010 and has been declining since) and the strengthened currency will only make it worse.
Switzerland has a very low unemployment rate at 3.4% but they have seen a small upswing since the summer when it was at 2.9%. The currency float should force some higher levels of unemployment in the near term. Why didn't they continue their peg? Too much foreign currency. Why didn't they just use the currency for something like a sovereign investment fund? They are Swiss after all and don't like entanglements in other countries.
We will see bad things happen to companies with Swiss HQ and operations abroad. The currency will make foreign profits disappear. The deflation (that everyone is facing) will put pressure on profits and prices everywhere. More unemployment will result from the contracting economies. All because Europe refuses to take the more direct path to recovery … reverse austerity. End a very bad idea.