The financial world experienced its equivalent of a major earthquake this month when the Swiss National Bank (SNB), the central bank of Switzerland, made a dramatic and unexpected change in policy. In 2011, concerned by the rapid appreciation of the Swiss Franc and, thus, damage to Switzerland’s exporting industries and commercial banks, the SNB instigated a policy of maintaining a peg with the Euro at 1.20 Francs to the Euro. If ever the price of Euros declined against this mark then the SNB would obligate itself to sell Swiss Francs and accumulate Euros to maintain the parity. This policy therefore created a seemingly impenetrable price floor for the Euro against the Franc. Whenever the Euro declined to the 1.20 area traders could take a sure bet that they could sell Francs and use them to buy Euros (technically referred to as “shorting the Franc”), knowing that the SNB would take action to depreciate the value of the Franc and thus increase the value of the Euros that these traders now held. Indeed, that was precisely what was happening and what was expected on January 15th of this year when many traders had just opened long EUR/CHF positions as the currency pair was hovering around the 1.20 area. In recent months, however, the increasingly lax monetary position of the European Central Bank in order to ward off deflation and sluggish growth in the Eurozone – leading to a QE programme announced on January 22nd – led the SNB to maintain an increasingly expensive policy of depreciation of its own currency that risked fuelling bubbles and malinvestments within its borders. Clearly they were spooked by something as no one seemed to be prepared for the sudden announcement, on January 15th, that the SNB would, with immediate effect, abolish the peg against the Euro and the Franc would again be permitted to fluctuate freely. The market was suddenly awash with sell orders for the Euro and buy orders for the Franc that, within the space of a few minutes following the announcement, the Euro depreciated against the Swiss Franc from about 1.20 to around 0.75 – a dramatic drop of 37.5% – and eventually settling around the 1.00 mark. The movement happened so fast that any liquidity between these two points completely evaporated and anyone hoping for an entry or exit between them was pursuing a lost cause. Needless to say, anybody who owned the Euro against the Franc lost an awful lot of money, with some large institutions, such as Citibank, Barclays and Deutsche Bank, losing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Particularly hardest hit, however, was the retail foreign exchange market, which in recent years has seen considerable growth amidst relatively lax regulation. Several of these outlets went bust while the largest, FXCM, had to be bailed out by an investment bank with $300m. Retail traders to whom these institutions cater are those who trade “on margin”, in other words, they borrow money to fund their positions. Thus their own equity amounts to only a proportion of the total cost of any trade, often as small as 0.5%. Therefore, a small movement in favour of any particular trade can lead to large profits, while a small movement in the opposite direction threatens not only to wipe out the client’s capital but to leave them owing money to their broker if the trade continues to sink and is not closed out. If this is the consequence of a small adverse movement, imagine the effects of an extremely large move such as that seen on the 15th. The movement was so sudden that stop losses, the trader’s conventional protection against risk, were useless and FXCM was particularly hard hit, being left with $225m worth of client accounts with negative equity. Needless to say, of course, there were also big winners on the other side, particularly those who were either skilful or fortunate enough to own put options on the Franc against the Euro with a strike price close to the former peg.

Standing aside from this entire calamity, what should the Austro-libertarian make of the situation? Profits and losses are supposed to be the result of superior entrepreneurial judgment in directing scarce resources available to the ends most urgently desired by consumers. Those whose judgements are more accurate than anyone else’s will walk away with profits, those who whose are not will be lumbered with losses. In financial markets, this is manifest in, say, the purchase of a stock which demonstrates the willingness to invest capital in the underlying enterprise and that the enterprise is one which will meet the ends of consumers with its trade; or a speculation in, say, the futures market is an attempt at “price discovery” and to prevent the emergence of false prices that would cause resources to be wasted1. However, the overwhelming fact that was laid bare on January 15th is that entrepreneurial fortunes are not made and lost in the financial markets through correct foresight of the desires of consumers – they are made and lost based on the whim of central banks. People are no longer rewarded for best estimating the desires of consumers but for guessing the motivations of the financial lords and masters sitting on their thrones of paper money. The stock market is no longer a place to rationally allocate resources amongst industries but a place to make bets on monetary policy. Indeed most of the significant shifts in a given stock market are made on days when the relevant central bank makes an important announcement. Those who clap their hands with glee when parasitic “gamblers” burned their hands on the day of the SNB announcement and “got what they deserved” should ask the logically prior question of why the financial markets have become such a casino in the first place. For years, central banks have maintained artificially low interests supported by monetary expansion which have made it profitable to plough funds into assets such as stocks at extraordinarily low cost – buoyed up by the, not unreasonable, belief that central banks will act to correct any dips in asset prices. Indeed with interest rates so low, borrowing money to buy assets has become an almost costless affair. Why should anyone follow other, riskier entrepreneurial ventures when this one has almost no chance of failure? Indeed, the SNB’s own commitment to maintain the peg seemed to promise free profit to anyone wishing to buy Euros and sell Francs near the peg, knowing full well that the SNB would be doing the same and hence buoying the value of the Euro against the Franc. Given that central banks have been creating fortunes for years it should come as no surprise when they take them away again, albeit in one, spectacular blow.

There is, however, a glimmer of light that has emerged from the situation – that the reputation of central banks and their pronouncements may have received lasting damage. First, the fact that the SNB reiterated, in no uncertain terms, its policy to maintain the peg a mere month before it was removed indicates that what central banks say cannot be trusted or taken as gospel. Second, the fact that it did so abandon its policy reveals the fact that these institutions do not possess the omnipotence and invincibility that they have led us to believe. In the long run, central banks cannot outwit reality and the market cannot be fought. By accumulating depreciating Euro assets at the same time as appreciating Franc liabilities the SNB was driving itself towards bankruptcy with a ludicrously expensive policy. Perhaps, therefore, the sudden realisation that the emperor has no clothes will cause bankers, economists, investors and speculators to look at central banks with a more critical and sceptical eye. May be there will then be a chance that the fatality of the pursuits of the more important central banks, such as the US Federal Reserve, will achieve widespread realisation.

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1DuncanWhitmore, Speculation, duncanwhitmore.com

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