Global currency markets are roiling in the aftermath of Thursday’s surprise decision by Switzerland’s central bank to end a 3-year policy that limited the franc from appreciating too much against the euro.
The move sent the franc soaring, triggering hundreds of millions of dollars of losses at banks including Barclays and Deutsche Bank, and bankrupted several currency brokers overnight. Many financial observers have lambasted the Swiss central bank for failing to signal the move was coming.
Jim Rogers, however, saw all of this coming, and he wrote about it in his 2013 book Street Smarts.
“I explained carefully and at length that it was coming and why,” he said in an email to Business Insider. “I am still astonished they would ever have done something so foolish, but politicians throughout history have always done some amazingly foolish things.”
Here’s the excerpt from the book:
Some of Switzerland’s most prestigious banks were established in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the turmoil that gripped France under Napoleon. Bank people fled France and took their money over the mountains to Geneva, which was not very far away. You will see that some of the great old Swiss banks, the private banks, were founded in 1795, 1803, years like that. But by then Swiss banking traditions were already well established.
Switzerland has been an international center of finance since the end of the Renaissance. Known since then for its stability, sound economy, sound currency, and privacy in financial matters, it has long provided monetary refuge from the wealthy evading the consequences of political turmoil in Europe, from French nobility fleeing the guillotine to the Jews escaping Germany a century and a half later. It has, for the same reasons, in modern times, attracted the money of numerous despots, criminal organisations, and scoundrels.
Switzerland, traditionally, has been unconditional in its offer of bank secrecy. Of course, all banks are supposed to keep your affairs quiet. If you put your money in a bank in Chicago fifty years ago, you would have done so with the assumption that it was confidential. In America, as we have seen, that is no longer the case. The government can look into your bank account, your bedroom, your mail … anywhere it wants. And in much the way that our privacy has been taken away from us, the Swiss have recently surrendered some of theirs, succumbing to pressure from the United States. Bank secrecy in Switzerland is not as sacrosanct as it once was.
Nonetheless, the first thing people look for when seeking monetary refuge is safety. They want stability. They want the security of knowing they will get their money back, and that they will get back at least as much as they put there in the first place. That depends entirely on a sound currency. And that is something the Swiss franc has always offered. The question, now, is whether that is going to last.
I had opened my first Swiss bank account in 1970 in the face of coming turmoil in the currency markets. By the end of the decade, as the markets grew more volatile, people all over the world were trying to open Swiss accounts. And the same thing is happening today. The dollar is suspect, the euro is suspect, and again people are rushing to the franc. In 2011, the CHF (the Swiss franc) escalated to record highs against both the euro and the dollar, rising 43 per cent against the euro in a year and a half as of August 2011.
It was a “massive overvaluation,” according to the country’s central bank, the Swiss National Bank (SNB). Under pressure from the country’s exporters, the SNB announced that “the value of the franc is a threat to the economy” and said it was “prepared to purchase foreign exchange in unlimited quantities” in order to drive the price down.
A threat to the economy? It was the exporters who were doing the screaming, but everybody else in Switzerland was better-off. When the franc rises, everything the Swiss import goes down in price, whether it is cotton shirts, TVs, or cars. The standard of living for everybody goes up. Every citizen of Switzerland benefits from a stronger currency. Our dental technician down in Geneva is not calling up and moaning. She is happy. Everything she buys is cheaper. But the big exporters get on the phone and the government takes their call.
The franc went down 7 or 8 per cent the day of the SNB announcement. Nobody, at least in the beginning, wanted to take on the central bank. But the bank’s currency manipulation will turn out to be disastrous. One of two things is going to happen.
In the first scenario, the market will continue to buy Swiss francs, which means that the Swiss National Bank will just have to keep printing and printing and printing, and that will of course debase the currency. Now, there are major exporters in Switzerland who might benefit, but the largest industry in Switzerland, the single largest business, is finance. The economy rises or falls on the nation’s ability to attract capital. And the reason people put their money there is their trust in the soundness of the currency- they not that their money will be there when they want it, and that it will not be worth significantly less than when they put it there in the first place.
But people will stop rushing to put their money into a country where the value of the currency is deliberately being driven down. After the Second World War and for the next thirty years, people took their money out of the United Kingdom because the currency plummeted. (Politicians blamed it on the gnomes of Zurich.) London ceased to be the world’s reserve financial center because Britain’s money was no good. Similarly, if you debase the franc, eventually nobody will want it. You will have eroded its value, not simply as a medium of exchange, but also a monetary refuge. The money will move to Singapore or Hong Kong, and the Swiss finance industry will wither up and disappear.
The alternative scenario is what happened in July 2010, the last time the Swiss tried to weaken their currency. They did so by buying up foreign currencies to hold against the franc-selling the franc to keep the price down. But the market just kept buying the francs, and the Swiss central bank, after quadrupling its foreign currency holdings, abandoned the effort. At that point, when the bank stopped selling it, the Swiss franc rose in value, all the currencies the Swiss had bought (and were now holding) declined in value, and the country lost $US21 billion. In the end, the market had more money than the bank, and market forces inevitably prevailed.
In the late 1970s when everyone was rushing to the franc, the Swiss National Bank, to stem the tide, imposed negative interest rates on foreign depositors. The government levied a tax on anybody who bought the currency. It was their form of exchange controls back then. If you bought 100 Swiss francs, you wound up with 70 in your pocket. Today, with the rush on again, The Economist has described the Swiss currency as “an innocent bystander in a world where the eurozone’s politicians have failed to sort out their sovereign-debt crisis, America’s economic policy seems intent on spooking investors and the Japanese have intervened to hold down the value of the yen.”
All of which is true, but I think the problem runs deeper than that. The Swiss for decades had a semi monopoly on finance. And as a result they have become less and less competent. The entire economy has been overprotected. The reason Swiss Air went bankrupt is because it never really had to compete. Any monopoly eventually destroys itself, and Switzerland, in predictable fashion, is corroding from within. As a result, other financial centres have been rising: London, Lichtenstein, Vienna, Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong.
I still have those original Swiss francs that I bought in 1970, and since then the franc is up about 400 per cent. Granted, it has been over forty years, but 400 per cent is nothing to sneeze at. Plus I have been collecting interest. Had I kept the money in an American savings account, it would have gone down 80 per cent against the franc.
Reprinted from “Street Smarts” Copyright © 2013 by Jim Rogers. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, a division Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.