Sunday, July 24, 2011

Swiss Gold - The Economist 7/21/00

The paper currency that everyone seems to like

PAPER currencies have not been very popular of late—witness gold’s surge to a record high against the dollar, sterling, the euro and the yen on July 18th. Near-zero interest rates and debt crises on both sides of the Atlantic make investors both risk-averse and nervous that governments might try to inflate their way out of the debt problem.

But there is one exception to the rule: the Swiss franc. As the chart shows, the franc is even stronger in trade-weighted terms than it was in the 1970s, a period when Switzerland imposed negative interest rates in an attempt to discourage foreigners from opening bank accounts.

Mansoor Mohi-uddin, a strategist at UBS, reckons that the franc, along with the Australian and Canadian dollars, has become part of a group of “shadow currencies” that are used by traders and investors to hedge their views on the global economy. Investors who are worried about the impact of America’s fiscal and monetary problems on the dollar but want to bet on its economy, which is closely linked to Canada’s, buy the loonie instead. Australia’s commodity-rich economy makes its dollar attractive to those who would like to bet on China’s economy without taking the political and corporate-governance risks of investing directly in the People’s Republic.

The Swiss franc represents, in UBS’s view, the modern equivalent of Germany's old D-mark. Switzerland has many attractions for the risk-averse investor. It has an inflation rate of less than 1% and a current-account surplus that has reached 15% of GDP. Despite the strength of the franc, exports have performed well and the economy is forecast to grow by more than 2% in both 2011 and 2012. The IMF expects the government to run a small budget surplus this year, and gross government debt is 53% of GDP, well below that of most of its European neighbors.

...Switzerland’s close ties to the German economic powerhouse are boosting growth...

Are investors being rational? On the OECD’s calculations of purchasing-power parity (a measure that adjusts for relative prices), the franc is 42% overvalued against the euro and 44% against the dollar. If the markets were suddenly to become more optimistic about the outlook for the global economy, or if Europe’s politicians solved their debt crisis, the Swiss franc would be vulnerable to a fall.

On the other hand, it seems sensible for investors to have an alternative bolthole to gold, an asset that delivers no yield at all, is very difficult to value, has risen sixfold from its 2001 low and which attracts the kind of public enthusiasm that has marked bubbles in other assets. The Swiss may not like the strong franc, but they could be stuck with it for a while.

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