The Clock Is Ticking In Switzerland

For most of my career in international investing, I had always placed a great deal of faith in Switzerland's financial markets. In recent years, however, as the Swiss government has sought to hitch its wagon to the flailing euro currency and kowtow increasingly to U.S.-based financial requirements, this faith has been shaken. But this week (November 30th) a referendum in Switzerland on whether its central bank will be required to hold at least 20% of its reserves in gold, will offer ordinary Swiss citizens a rare opportunity to reclaim their country's strong economic heritage. It's a vote that few outside Switzerland are following, but the outcome could make an enormous impact on the global economy.

Traditionally, the Swiss franc had always attracted international investors looking for a long-term store of value. That's because the Swiss government had always kept sacred the idea of conservative central banking and fiscal balance. When the idea of the European common currency was first proposed, the Swiss were wise to stay out. They did not want to exchange the franc for an unknown and untried pan-national currency. The creators of the euro had suggested that it would become the heir to the strong Deutsche mark. Instead, it has become the step-child of the troubled Italian lira and the Greek drachma.  In retrospect, the Swiss were wise to take no part in the experiment. 

But the decision of the Swiss government in 2011 to peg the franc to the euro, in order to prevent the franc from rising, has meant that the nation has adopted the euro de facto. In order to effect this peg, the Swiss government has had to intervene massively in the currency exchange market to buy and stockpile euros, thereby weakening the franc. The raw numbers are so staggering that rank and file Swiss have taken notice. Over the last few years the Swiss economy has stagnated along with the rest of Europe, and Swiss citizens have come to understand that the current policy will require an open-ended commitment to keep doing more of the same. This frustration has given birth to the referendum movement.

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