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Switzerland Becomes First Major Western Currency To Devalue Currency

  • Charles Recknagel

The Swiss devalued in order to correct for many months of the franc gaining value against the world's major currencies.

The Swiss devalued in order to correct for many months of the franc gaining value against the world's major currencies.

Finance ministers of the G20 -- the world's 20 biggest economies -- are meeting in London to discuss the global economic crisis.

Their meeting is to lay the groundwork for when the heads of government of the same 20 countries meet on April 2 in London. The April summit is widely considered to be the world's best hope for agreeing upon a common strategy for confronting the deepening recession.

But even as the finance ministers speak, signs keep mounting that this is a crisis that individual governments are going to tackle their own way even as they speak of unity.

We have seen a level of volatility in foreign exchange in the last 18 months the like of which we have never seen before.
The latest sign comes from Switzerland, which on March 12 became the first Western country to deliberately devalue its currency.

The Swiss National Bank spent millions of francs to buy up euros and dollars, sending the value of the Swiss franc plunging against both currencies.

The franc lost 2.6 percent of its value against the euro and 3.2 percent against the dollar.

The Swiss devalued in order to correct for many months of the franc gaining value against the world's major currencies. That happened because investors have been fleeing the euro zone, in particular for what they see as the greater stability of the Swiss economy and its currency.

Unprecedented Volatility

Analysts say that flight of money to Switzerland mirrors a general stampede around the world as investors look everywhere for safe havens.

"We have seen a level of volatility in foreign exchange in the last 18 months the like of which we have never seen before," says David Buik, a senior strategist at the London-based brokerage BGC International. "Obviously, we have seen levels of volatility, but not protracted [like this one] over 18 months."

Ironically, the influx of investment -- which might be good news in ordinary times -- has badly damaged the Swiss economy in these anything-but-ordinary times of recession.

The strong Swiss franc made Swiss exports too expensive to sell and made Switzerland itself too expensive for many tourists to visit -- dealing blows to two major sectors of the Swiss economy.

The March 12 devaluation may help the Swiss National Bank combat what it now expects to be a 2.5 to 3 percent contraction of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) this year.

The Swiss move raises the possibility that other countries may now be emboldened to similarly devalue their currencies to make their own exports less expensive.

That sparks fears of trade wars that could pit one country against another and lead to increased protectionism -- things that many economists say would worsen the global recession.

Trade Wars

Protectionism and the competitive devaluing of currencies was a main feature of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and '30s.

Protectionism -- the closing of a country to exports from another country -- causes export sectors everywhere to shrink, adding to unemployment.

To prevent such trade wars, Buik hopes the upcoming G20 will deliver a clear message that the world's major economies will work together in the current crisis.

He says that without such a message, more currency manipulation is inevitable.

"If people decide to do it in their own individual way, then currency manipulation by governments eventually, in order to maintain their profitability in terms of trade and budget deficits and surpluses will eventually take place," Buik says.

Of particular concern are such export-driven countries like Japan. To boost its exports of automobiles and electronic products, Tokyo sought to weaken the yen in 2004.

The yen is widely perceived in Japan as overvalued, and the county's exports fell by a record 46 percent in January from a year earlier.

This week's Swiss devaluation of the franc is the first time a big central bank has intervened in the foreign exchange markets since Japan's action five years ago.
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