March 2, 2021

For Strong and Weak, Debt Pressures Rattle Europe

Come to Switzerland.

An avalanche of dollars and euros has been tumbling into this Alpine outpost at record rates, as investors see the franc as a haven from the twin debt crises in the United States and Europe. And the Swiss are not happy about it.

On Wednesday, the typically silent Swiss central bank declared the currency “massively overvalued” against the dollar and euro, and unexpectedly cut interest rates in an attempt to weaken the franc. The franc retreated slightly but is still too strong, as far as the Swiss are concerned.

“The franc is like the new gold,” said a Geneva banker who would give only his first name, Dmitri, insisting on the discretion that is the hallmark of this reserved nation. “It’s crazy and it’s all anyone is talking about, in the morning, at lunch, at dinner parties.”

It was certainly Topic A at the noon lunch hour recently in Geneva, where Dmitri and other dark-suited bankers had emerged from the doors of Credit Suisse, UBS, Goldman Sachs and many other wealthy banks to perch near the broad expanse of Lake Geneva to chew on grilled fish and the issues of the day.

Switzerland is vaunted as a country that attracts money for its secretive bank accounts and the less savory business of tax evasion. But it is also the home of “le franc fort,” a muscular currency long seen as second perhaps only to the dollar because this nation — unlike some others — tends to have its finances in order.

Now the Swiss franc is  second no more.

Despite the passage at long last of a Washington deal to lift America’s debt ceiling, the dollar recently plunged to record lows against the Swiss franc on fears the American economy will slow further.

Even after the Swiss central bank’s announcement, the dollar was trading at 77 Swiss centimes, down about a third from the level of a year ago.

The euro has fared little better. As Europe succumbed to its own debt troubles last year, the franc took off against the euro. Now, as the latest European bailout for Greece fails to shield big countries like Italy and Spain from the credit contagion, the franc remains strong against the euro.

Despite the Swiss central bank’s Wednesday move, a euro will buy 1.10 Swiss francs — far less than the 1.38 francs that a euro was worth a year ago.

With the rest of the world so untidy, Switzerland looks pristine. Despite a generous safety net, this tiny nation does not have other onerous expenses, like a big military. Its current account surplus is an enviable 15 percent of gross domestic product, and it has low debt. The economy grew 2.6 percent last year; unemployment is around 3 percent.

Still, while it is easy for Switzerland to lure other people’s money, there may be such a thing as too much of it. Even for the Swiss.

The Swiss central bank sought to tamp down demand on Wednesday by narrowing its target band for a key rate, the 3-month Libor, to 0.00-0.25 percent from 0.00-0.75 percent to fight the franc’s appreciation.

Authorities declared they “won’t tolerate” a “tightening of monetary conditions,” and would take further steps as necessary to curb the franc’s rise.

The cost of fine Swiss-made goods, from watches to precision machinery, has gone from eye-popping to eye-watering, and Swiss companies are warning of peril.

“This is bad for the Swiss economy,” said Thomas Christen, the chief executive of Lucerne-based Reed Electronics, who has started buying cheaper materials to offset his costs.

Everything from a cup of coffee to a Swiss Alpine ski vacation has been priced to the stretching point or beyond reach for many tourists.

Mark Tompkins and Serena Koenig of Boston were stunned during a recent visit. “A mixed drink at an average bar,” Mr. Tompkins said, “was 18 to 20 Swiss francs” — $23 to $25 — “so two rounds of drinks for four people was crazy expensive.”

In downtown Geneva, where a phalanx of regal storefronts glitter with diamonds and gold, Jean Loichot said his business from Americans and Europeans had slowed to a trickle.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=8c5a3cb06e29cf1ace7ed2753714aba1

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