GENEVA — While the Swiss National Bank is confident its policy mix will help lower the value of the franc, nervous executives and analysts remain uncertain it will happen soon enough to ease the loss of market share for Swiss exporters, including leading watch brands..
“The SNB is aware that many companies find themselves in a difficult situation. And it has great respect for the challenges facing Switzerland’s businesses,” Thomas Jordan, chairman of the governing board of the SNB, told delegates to the annual meeting of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry last week in Lausanne.
In May, Swiss watch exports were valued at 1.7 billion francs, or $1.82 billion at current exchange, down 8.9 percent on the same month last year, according to the federation’s data. In 2014, exports for the watch sector grew by 1.9 percent to 22. 2 billion francs, or $23.8 billion.
The federation noted all price segments registered declines of between 8 and 11 percent in May and pointed out the downturn in export volumes “was dictated above all by watches costing less than 200 francs,” or $214. However, other segments recorded steeper declines, as much as 14.2 percent for timepieces costing more than 3,000 francs, or $3,213.
Jordan admitted the franc “is currently significantly overvalued,” but stressed the SNB’s willingness to intervene in foreign exchange markets and apply negative interest rates to put a damper on the franc.
On June 18, Jordan said in Bern, “The SNB decision back on January 15 to abandon the cap in the strength of the franc against the euro at Fr. 1.20 combined with negative interest rates at between -1.25 percent and -0.25 percent and interest on sight deposits at the SNB to remain at -0.75 percent make holding investments in Swiss francs less attractive over time.”
Swiss finance experts agree that the odds are the franc will depreciate, but note it’s hard to gauge when this will occur.
Urs Schneider, emeritus professor at the Swiss International Finance and Commodities Institute, said the SNB has been attacked now as the franc “has not depreciated vis-a-vis the euro as initially anticipated by SNB back in January when it removed the cap.”
But Schneider added, “It may still happen.”
Stefan Vannoni, economist with the Swiss Business Federation, said the group, which represents 100 industry associations, sees the strong franc “as a big problem.”
Everyone thought back in January after the cap was lifted that the euro would appreciate back to around 1.10 to 1.15 to the franc, he said, “but that has still to happen.”
The euro has hovered around 1.04 to 1.05 to the franc since January.
Overall, Vannoni said luxury goods are still doing quite well, but stressed engineering and machinery exports “have big problems.”
Switzerland is also a major exporter of textile machinery.
Swissmem, an industry umbrella group for the mechanical and electrical engineering industries, said exports in the first quarter fell by 1.4 percent year-on-year.
But on a brighter note, Vannoni highlighted Swiss exports are quite diversified, which should help cushion some of the forex costs.
He was also hopeful an anticipated increase in U.S. interest rates sometime this year might help in an appreciation of the dollar over the franc.
The U.S. is a major market for Swiss luxury exports, including watches, accessories, cosmetics and fragrances.
Pierre Christodoulidis, chief executive officer at ICSOS Group SA, the Geneva-based financial advisers, said the trend for the franc is “downwards at single or double digits.”
He predicted ery tough new rules on offshore financial centers like Switzerland would erode its status as a financial haven, and trigger an outflow of funds, putting downward pressure on the franc