The completely unexpected decision of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) to remove the 1.20 floor on the Swiss franc against the euro on Thursday was one of the biggest currency shocks since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971. The decision has been heavily criticised, both for its tactical handling of the foreign exchange market, and for the collapse of the centrepiece of its monetary strategy, without (apparently) any overriding cause. The credibility of a central bank that has traditionally been hugely respected by the markets has clearly been dented.
The decision has already caused severe stress and bankruptcies in the currency market, and it is far too early to judge whether this has now settled down. More importantly, the deflationary shock to the Swiss economy will be severe. And there are concerns that the failure of the SNB’s policy of unlimited market intervention may have much more profound implications for the credibility of the wider market interventions by global central banks, on which asset prices currently depend.
It is important to keep this in perspective. The SNB decision may have been driven to a large degree by the fear of losses on the central bank’s balance sheet, which are peculiar to the ownership structure of the central bank in Switzerland. Furthermore, other major central banks are not operating currency pegs, where large balance sheet losses tend to occur. Even so, this event will clearly make investors question whether the central banks can indefinitely exert as much control over the financial markets as the period of quantitative easing has suggested. Read more