Bowing to the inevitable, Switzerland has ditched an increasingly expensive policy to limit the export-sapping rise of the Swiss franc — a decision that propelled the currency a whopping 30 percent higher against the euro within minutes.
Thursday’s decision by the Swiss National Bank, or SNB, to end its efforts to keep the euro from trading below 1.20 francs came amid mounting speculation that the European Central Bank will next week back a big stimulus program that will put more euros in circulation, which would further dilute their value.
That expectation has seen the euro face intense selling pressure in currency markets, particularly against the dollar. The euro has fallen to nine-year lows against the dollar and below its launch rate in 1999.
As the outlook for the euro has darkened, the cost for the Swiss central bank of defending the peg by buying euros or selling francs has risen. Though the timing of the Swiss decision proved a surprise, most foreign exchange experts thought the peg would have to be abandoned, just as previous such efforts had.
“Switzerland suddenly got a whole lot more expensive,” said Michael Hewson, senior market analyst at CMC Markets.
Many analysts thought the decision was inevitable in light of next week’s expected announcement by the ECB to break new ground in its efforts to inject life into the ailing 19-country eurozone economy. Its stimulus package is expected to be worth as much as 1 trillion euros ($1.17 trillion).
The peg, which was introduced in Sept. 2011, was an attempt to halt the rise of the franc — a traditional haven currency for investors — against the euro at a time when the eurozone debt crisis was at its height. The strong franc was then particularly problematic for Swiss exporters, who were forced to drastically cut prices to remain competitive.
Unsurprisingly, Thursday’s move prompted a painful 11 percent drop in Switzerland’s stock market as investors took fright at the worsening outlook for Switzerland’s traditional exporters, such as those selling chocolate or ski holidays.