Switzerland: Fallout from the plunging euro
11 August 2011
Although it's not part of the eurozone, the Swiss Confederation is not immune to the storm that has overtaken the single currency. Beginning with the overvaluation of the Swiss franc, it has brought a rain of disaster for exports and tourism.
"Per night, for two persons, all-inclusive: 36.50 Swiss francs." Monika Abplanalp, the manager of the campsite, is explaining that here in Switzerland prices have not gone up – it’s only in the countries of the eurozone that they seem to have skyrocketed. "Four years ago when we opened," she says, "36.50 Swiss francs were still worth 22 euros. Now they’re worth 33."
The result for Monika Abplanalp’s camping site, nestled in the Bernese Alps, is, she says, "Fewer tourists – a lot fewer. Normally, Germans, Swiss and Dutch are our main customers. But this year there are hardly any Germans, and many Swiss are taking their holidays abroad, because everything is much cheaper over there right now."
The poor Swiss: they’re outside the single currency, they have their public finances in perfect order, and yet they’ve been side-swiped by the euro crisis. Once so steady, the Swiss franc has reached record highs in recent weeks, bringing on serious lows for exports and tourism. Investors fleeing the problems in the eurozone and worries in the US are fleeing en masse to the investment haven of the Swiss franc. Currently one Swiss franc is worth 0.95 cents, a hike upwards of 13 percent in just one month. At its lowest, before the start of the credit crisis in 2007, it was 60 cents to a euro.
According to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development early this month, this rise makes the Swiss franc the most overvalued currency on the planet. The natural value of the currency floats rather between 71 and 77 cents, says a spokesman for the Swiss central bank.
The appreciation does have benefits for the Swiss living in border areas, who can shop abroad very cheaply. Supermarket parking lots just over the border are overflowing with Swiss licence plates. For the Swiss economy, though, the rise is much less attractive. According to figures published on August 5 by the Federal Office of Statistics, the number of European tourists had already fallen significantly in the first half of 2011: Belgians were down by 9.5 percent, Netherlanders by 8 percent, and Germans by 7.6 percent.
Switzerland has never been a bargain-basement destination, but the current appreciation of the Swiss franc is on a scale not seen in forty years. A night in the most affordable suite in Beau Rivage, a luxury hotel in Geneva, cost the equivalent of 582 euros back in November: it now goes for 740 euros. And if you drink just one cocktail on a terrace in Switzerland this summer, you will have to swallow a bill of around 20 euros.
Swiss industry is also feeling the pinch, as exporting companies find it ever tougher and the technology group ABB has reported drops in sales. Some smaller firms are asking their employees to put in longer hours for the same wages to make up for the shortfall.
Under growing political pressure, the Swiss central bank has cut its key rate to near zero in the hopes of curbing the soaring Swiss franc. Parity with the euro is what haunts the Swiss, for if the surge continues the franc will soon be worth as much as – if not more than – the euro.
Switzerland is paying the price of its financial stability. "If we have these problems, it’s because we’re in a very positive situation, while Europe and the United States are facing serious problems," Philipp Hildebrand, president of the central bank, told Swiss television. Switzerland is one of the few European countries showing a budget surplus. Its trade balance shows a comfortable surplus, and the unemployment rate, at three per cent, is still lower than that of the Netherlands, the top student in the EU class.
If the rise in the value of the franc continues, Switzerland’s economic growth, which was above three per cent in the first quarter, will probably register a sharp contraction. And experts are not ruling out a recession.
All that said, some Swiss people admit -- a touch mockingly -- that the fate of the eurozone countries is not enviable either. "The Netherlands and Germany are shelling out for the other countries in the euro area," says Monika Abplanalp. "Switzerland is beautiful, clean and safe. Hopefully it’ll stay that way. "