Is The Swiss National Bank Faking It?
Some time ago we said that in a world in which virtually every risk and liquidity benchmark is manipulated by either private banks (thank your Liebor) or central banks, if one needs to know the true state of events in Europe, the only real remaining, unmanipulated benchmark remain Swiss nominal bond yields. And at -23.5 bps for the 2 Year it is telling us that nothing is fixed. As usual. Also judging by the SNB's new head Jordan statements which just hit the tape, in which he says that he would not rule out capital controls or negative rates if the crisis worsens, the SNB gets it. Or does it? Jordan also said that the SNB is ready to defend the FX market with unlimited market purchases if necessary. However, as the note below from JPM shows, the SNB may simply be faking it, hoping it too can get away with simple jawboning, instead of actually putting its money where its mouth is. As it turns out the SNB has indeed been intervening in huge size in the month of May to keep the EURCHF peg. The previously undisclosed news is that it has also been sterilizing its purchases. As JPM further notes: "This is highly significant and undermines the credibility of the SNB’s claim that it is willing to do whatever it takes to hold EUR/CHF 1.20. For the floor to be credible the SNB needs to surrender control over the Swiss monetary based, i.e. it has to be willing to deliver both unlimited and unsterilised FX intervention. The intervention in May was certainly unlimited; it most definitely was not unsterilised." How long until the FX vigilantes decide to test just how far the SNB is truly willing to go in defending the peg? And what happens when Swiss nominal yields hit record negative numbers once again?
From JPM's observations from June 29: The SNB sterilised one half of its FX intervention in May.
The SNB released its full balance sheet for May this morning, which provides a complete picture of the central bank’s FX intervention and liquidity operations during the month. The data confirmed what we already knew from the provisional data three weeks ago that the SNB intervened in huge size during the month (net FX reserves increased by CHF 62.9bn net of valuation effects). What we didn’t know is that approximately half of this intervention was in fact sterilised. This is highly significant and undermines the credibility of the SNB’s claim that it is willing to do whatever it takes to hold EUR/CHF 1.20. For the floor to be credible the SNB needs to surrender control over the Swiss monetary based, i.e. it has to be willing to deliver both unlimited and unsterilised FX intervention. The intervention in May was certainly unlimited; it most definitely was not unsterilised.
The SNB partially sterilised the liquidity effect of the FX intervention in two ways: 1) it reduced the provision of liquidity via CHF repos by 17bn; and 2) it reduced its provision of franc liquidity via FX swaps by 11.7bn (FX swaps are now negative, in other words they have been used to remove CHF liquidity from the system, in contrast to August and September last year when the SNB used FX swaps to inject some CHF 80bn of liquidity). Compared to gross FX intervention of CHF 63bn, the monetary base thus expanded by only CHF 33bn. Not only does the balance sheet data shed fresh light on May’s operations, it would also suggest that the current scale of the SNB’s FX intervention could be substantially larger than suggested by the weekly change in the SNB’s sight deposits. Sight deposits will only register the effect of unsterilised intervention. So far this month deposits have increased by CHF 48bn. There is no way of telling whether the SNB has continued to partially sterilise this intervention. But if the sterilization ratio remains the same as in May, intervention this month could be nearer CHF 100bn than the CHF 50bn suggested by the sight deposit data. Provisional data for gross FX reserves in June is released July 7.
Why would the SNB seek to partially sterilise its intervention, given that both theory and the SNB’s own experience would suggest that sterilised intervention cannot hope to influence the exchange rate in the long-term? (Sterilised intervention by definition has no effect on the supply of the currency and hence no lasting effect on the price. The SNB tried sterilised intervention in 2009-2010 – the failure of this policy was as predictable as it was inevitable). Presumably even the SNB recognises that the super-loose liquidity policy required to stabilise the exchange rate is wholly at odds with the needs of an economy which is growing at 2% p.a, which has no output gap and in which the housing market is overheating and credit growth is becoming problematic. Unfortunately, the SNB cannot isolate the economy from the effects of its exchange rate peg – for the peg to work the SNB has to be willing ultimately to create inflation (through the channel of unlimited liquidity creation); and if it is unwilling to create unlimited liquidity and inflation then peg cannot endure. This then is the significance of today’s data – in partially sterilising its FX intervention, the SNB is partially undermining the very credibility of its currency peg.
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