Tag Archives: Switzerland

SNB Losses in the News

My written statement for 20minuten:

Anlageverluste der SNB sind schlecht für den Schweizer Steuerzahler, denn ihm gehört die SNB. Sie können aber auch Entwicklungen widerspiegeln, die ihre guten Seiten haben. Jetzt zum Beispiel führt die Frankenstärke zu Anlageverlusten, bremst aber auch die importierte Inflation.

Die Diskussion um die Höhe der SNB-Ausschüttungen ist vielfach fehlgeleitet. In der Debatte geht vergessen, dass Gewinnausschüttungen das Reinvermögen von Bund und Kantonen nicht verändern. Denn Ausschüttungen sind keine Transfers von Dritten an Bund oder Kantone – sie tauschen lediglich eine Aktivposition in der Bilanz von Bund oder Kantonen gegen eine andere aus, wie bei einer Dividendenausschüttung eines Unternehmens. Die Hauptwirkung von Ausschüttungen ist, dass sie Beschränkungen wie die Schuldenbremse vorübergehend lockern. Das mag der Grund dafür sein, dass manche Politiker und Wähler sie mögen.

And the resulting publication.

SRF website and SRF Echo der Zeit (interview taken on 26 July).

The SNB’s Financial Result, Currency Reserves, and Distribution Reserve

How are SNB profits and losses distributed and what issues are debated?

Annual Result Funds two “Reserves”

The annual result (Jahresergebnis) of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) is split into two parts. The first part funds “provisions for currency reserves” (Zuweisungen an Rückstellungen für Währungsreserven) which are meant to provide a buffer against future losses on the SNB’s asset positions. The second part funds current and future profit distributions to the Confederation and cantons (Ausschüttungen an Bund und Kantone) and dividend payments to SNB shareholders. The ad hoc announcement regarding the SNB’s 2021 annual result (English, German) provides an overview.

Allocation Rules

The SNB decides how the annual result is split, subject to some guidance in the National Bank Law (NBG, English, German, e.g., Art. 30 (1) and Art. 42 (2d) NBG). In practice the SNB follows a mechanical rule to determine the provisions for currency reserves. This rule operates “on the basis of double the average nominal GDP growth rate over the previous five years” or “10% of the provisions at the end of the previous year,” whatever yields higher provisions (source).

How the second part of the annual result is split between current and future distributions is governed by an agreement between the SNB and the Federal Department of Finance (English, German). The law prescribes that the “[t]he Department and the National Bank shall, for a specified period of time, agree on the amount of the annual profit distribution with the aim of smoothing these distributions in the medium term” (31(2) NBG). In practice the SNB and the Federal Department of Finance have frequently revised the agreement. This reflected the SNB’s rapidly growing balance sheet and larger profits.

The current agreement determines the profit distributions and dividends to shareholders as follows: Define the “distributable annual result” (Ausschüttbares Jahresergebnis) as the annual result net of the allocation to provisions for currency reserves. The distribution reserve (Ausschüttungsreserve), a liability item in the SNB’s balance sheet, amounts to the cumulative past distributable annual results, net of the payments to Confederation, cantons and shareholders. The sum of distribution reserve and distributable annual result yields the “net profit” (Bilanzgewinn). When the net profit is negative the agreement prescribes zero distributions to the Confederation and the cantons. When it is positive the agreement prescribes distributions that rise up to CHF 6 billion, depending on the size of net profits. Under no circumstances must distributions be so high as to directly imply that the distribution reserve becomes negative.

Discussion

That the SNB determines how the annual result is split certainly makes sense. After all the SNB bears responsibility for monetary policy and thus needs to be able to employ its balance sheet as far as this has current and future monetary policy implications. It is doubtful, however, that the mechanical rule the SNB follows adequately reflects foreign exchange and investment risks as well as monetary policy needs going forward. Preferably, the SNB should determine the adequate provisions based on an analysis of risks and monetary policy needs and communicate its analysis and conclusions to the public (see my proposal from February 2021). In June 2021 the SNB Observatory made a similar proposal, arguing that the SNB should “[d]etermine a target ratio of provisions-to-balance sheet or provisions-to-foreign investments. Provisions should not be accumulated beyond this point.” More specifically, the SNB Observatory criticized that the SNB never actually uses the provisions to cover losses when they occur; it proposed that the SNB “[u]se the provisions for foreign investments to cover losses when they occur. Replenish provisions with profits of subsequent years.”

The procedure to determine the split between current and future distributions is rather inflexible and thus requires frequent adjustment if the SNB’s balance sheet changes. The fact that the SNB smoothes payouts from the distribution reserve (at too low a rate according to the SNB Observatory) suggests a lack of trust in the ability of decision makers at the federal and cantonal level to responsibly manage the funds received from the SNB. I find this questionable (see my comments from February 2021) but I realize that the law does require some degree of smoothing.

Finally, many of the political discussions surrounding the amount of SNB distributions are misguided. The debate neglects that profit distributions do not significantly alter the net worth of the Confederation or the cantons. After all, SNB profit distributions are not transfers from a third party—they just swap one asset item in the balance sheets of the Confederation and cantons against another one, like dividend payouts of a firm. The main effect of distributions is to temporarily relax restrictions such as the debt brake (see my explanations with links to further analysis); that might be the reason why some politicians and voters like them.

Details

  • The agreement between the SNB and the Federal Department of Finance states that “[t]he non-distributed amount of the annual result is allocated to this [distribution] reserve, and any shortfall for a distribution is drawn from it.” I think it should read “[t]he non-distributed amount of the annual result net of provisions for currency reserves is allocated …”
  • Per January 2022 the provisions for currency reserves amounted to CHF 95 billion. The distribution reserve amounted to CHF 103 billion.
  • Between 2005 and 2020 the return rates on SNB investments never fell below -6% (source).
  • As of mid 2022 the return rate appears to be on the order of -8% (balance sheet length approximately CHF 1 000 billion, first-quarter loss CHF 33 billion (source), prospective second-quarter loss 50 billion).
  • Swiss net foreign assets amount to roughly CHF 600 billion.

Updates: Minor editorial changes, 29 July.

“Digital Finance bedroht Geld- und Währungshoheit (Digital Finance Threatens Monetary Sovereignty),” NZZ, 2022

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, February 17, 2022. PDF.

  • The federal council’s digital finance strategy focuses on regulation.
  • There are limits to this strategy when financial markets operate globally and virtually.
  • Preserving monetary sovereignty requires an attractive national currency.
  • Carrots, not only sticks.
  • An attractive currency is not only stable but also usable in digital form.

Income Tax Burdens in Switzerland

In the NZZ, Hansueli Schöchli summarizes recent evidence.

Wer in der Schweiz im Jahr 2017 wie viel Einkommenssteuer bezahlte

Anteil Steuerpflichtige (in Prozent) Anzahl Steuerpflichtige Minimales Reineinkommen in Fr. Durchschnittliche Steuerbelastung (in %) Anteil der Einkommenssteuer Bund/Kanton/Gemeinde (in %)
0,01 515 4 548 020 43,8 4,82
0,1 5 150 1 109 760 37,3 9,89
1 51 498 331 731 34,4 24,04
5 257 489 152 799 28,1 42,55
10 514 978 111 403 24,6 53,03
25 1 287 444 73 769 20,7 74,13
50 2 574 888 49 989 18 90,24

… Hinzu kommen noch die Abgaben auf hohen Löhnen für AHV/IV/EO sowie für die Arbeitslosenversicherung. In der AHV sind Abgaben auf Löhnen über rund 86 000 Fr. nicht mehr rentenbildend und deshalb faktisch Steuern. Bei der Arbeitslosenversicherung gilt dies für Abgaben auf Löhnen über 148 200 Fr. Für hohe Löhne bedeutet all dies noch eine steuerliche Zusatzbelastung von total 11 bis 12%.

“Die Nationalbank ist an vielen Fronten gefordert (Challenges for the Swiss National Bank),” NZZ, 2021

NZZ, August 10, 2021. PDF (title changed by NZZ). Related article in Ökonomenstimme. HTML.

Should the SNB follow the Fed and the ECB and rework its strategy? There is a case for rethinking the broad inflation target, the monetary policy concept, and the communication strategy. Equally important is a strategy review outside of the SNB: The SNB cannot and must not decide about the framework within which it operates.

Conclusion:

Daher ist eine Strategieüberprüfung inner- und ausserhalb der SNB sinnvoll. Geldpolitisch prüfenswert sind das Inflationszielband, die Zentralität des Zinsinstruments und die Kommunikation. Die Glaubwürdigkeit der SNB verbietet ein Auseinanderklaffen von Theorie und Praxis, aber auch allzu häufiges und detailversessenes Feilen an der Strategie, und sie verlangt Konzentration auf das Wesentliche. Gleichzeitig sollte die SNB ihre Bindung an den – gegebenenfalls sich wandelnden – Willen des Gesetzgebers betonen. Bei Fragen, die nicht allein in ihre Zuständigkeit fallen, muss sie klarstellen, dass sie Partei und nicht Schiedsrichterin ist. Damit die SNB auch in Zukunft zu den grossen Schweizer Erfolgsgeschichten zählt, muss sie von Zeit zu Zeit über die Bücher gehen. Doch alleine kann sie die Verantwortung in Geld- und Währungsfragen nicht tragen.

CBDC with Collateralized Pass-Through Funding: The Swiss Case

In his University of St. Gallen MA thesis entitled “CBDC with Collateralized Pass-Through Funding,” Bastian Wetzel assesses how strongly banks would be affected by deposit outflows into retail CBDC:

The results of the study show that 92.7 percent of all sight deposits in the aggregate Swiss banking sector are covered by excess liquidity and eligible assets, whereas sight deposits held in CHF are covered by over 100 percent. Therefore, the collateral constraint seems to be a problem only in the unlikely event where almost all sight deposits converted to CBDC. As expected, refinancing costs decline when disintermediation is low due to negative interest rates on deposits at the SNB. As disintermediation increases, funding costs rise. Thus, if disintermediation is high, the net result from interest operations could decrease by over 4 percent. To compensate for this loss, banks would have to increase their lending rate on their credits outstanding. Yet, if the central bank lends on the same terms as the customer deposits withdrawn, as also proposed by Brunnermeier and Niepelt (2019), instead of the 0.5 percent as assumed in this paper, the impact on funding costs and bank lending could potentially be mitigated. With regard to the emergence of narrow banks, it can be said that the money multiplier is already close to 1. Thus, the concern about full-reserve banking seems to be irrelevant for the time being. The results of the quantification of bank run risk show that while the aggregate banking sector is able to cover the majority of sight deposits, the coverage ratios for individual banking groups is very heterogeneous. While the big banks are covered by more than 100 percent, Cantonal banks are covered by about three quarters and Raiffeisen banks by only half. In addition, compared to big banks, Cantonal banks and especially Raiffeisen banks hold almost no eligible assets. Thus, when considering individual banking groups, a system-wider run could potentially lead to a consolidation in the banking sector. It should be noted that the study conducted is a snapshot at a time when CBDC was not yet implemented.

Swiss Bankers Association on CBDC

In a new working paper the Swiss Bankers Association identifies challenges for banks. Nevertheless it argues that

[a]ny conclusion that the status quo is the least risky option seems premature and shortsighted.

The introduction of digital currencies and design questions regarding payment methods and infrastructure represent strategic business as well as political challenges on which public authorities and business must take a productive position. An informed discussion on the design and implementation of digital currencies is essential. It is time for the general public to consider these issues and drive the opinion-forming process.

“Schuldenbremse — Licht und Schatten (Debt Brake—Merits and Risks),” FuW, 2021

Finanz und Wirtschaft, June 5, 2021. PDF.

  • The debt brake addresses some political economy frictions, but not others.
  • Focusing too narrowly on explicit government debt it provides incentives to accumulate implicit debt, sell assets, or engage in creative accounting.
  • The political pressure to raise SNB profit disbursements is a symptom of these incentives.

“Staatsschulden sind keineswegs kostenlos (Free Government Debt?),” NZZ, 2021

NZZ, February 1, 2021. PDF (title changed by NZZ). Related article in Ökonomenstimme. HTML.

Do negative interest rates render government debt costless? No. What about r<g? I discuss Olivier Blanchard’s presidential address and the conclusions that columnists have drawn.

For background: See this post.

“Unabhängigkeit der Nationalbank (Independence of the SNB),” FuW, 2020

Finanz und Wirtschaft, July 25, 2020. PDF.

The Swiss National Bank—yes, the Swiss one—feels it must remind politicians of its independence. Parliamentarians from left to right (!) voice demands. To shrink the SNB’s balance sheet? No, for more central bank profits to be distributed sooner rather than later.

I discuss misconceptions, possible motivations, and a constructive response. «The best way to defend the independence of a central bank is never to exercise it.»

Medical Specialist Condemns Swiss Covid-19 Preparations and Response

In Die Mittelländische Zeitung, a Swiss doctor criticizes Switzerland’s preparations and response to Covid-19. He points to

  • Lack of preparation by political decision makers
  • Misleading communication by federal health officials
  • Their apparent lack of awareness of academic work on the topic
  • Arrogance in Switzerland and the West vis-à-vis China and other far eastern countries
  • Sensationalist scare mongering in the media
  • Calls for systematic infection of groups that are less at risk

Informative as far as medical aspects are concerned. Not convincing when criticizing statistical approaches to grasping the problem. Questionable as far as ex-post validation of eight studies and calls for action are concerned.

“Wirtschaftspolitik angesichts von Covid-19: Lastenteilung, aber keine Preismanipulationen (Economic Policy Responses to Covid-19: Burden Sharing, But no Price Distortions),” ÖS, 2020

Ökonomenstimme, 3 April 2020. HTML. Shorter version published in NZZ.

The aggregate Covid-19 shock calls for transfers of the type a pandemic insurance would have brought about. But we must not distort relative prices. They have to reflect scarcity, to provide incentives to overcome it. (This applies within countries but also across.)

“Preise müssen sich frei bilden können (Prices Must Reflect Scarcity),” NZZ, 2020

NZZ, 2 April 2020. PDF.

The aggregate Covid-19 shock calls for transfers of the type a pandemic insurance would have brought about. But we must not distort relative prices. They have to reflect scarcity, to provide incentives to overcome it. (This applies within countries but also across.)

Switzerland Peps Up SMEs

How Switzerland peps up SMEs: Banks are encouraged to extend credit (at 0%). The treasury guarantees the loans. The SNB refinances banks and accepts the guaranteed loans as collateral. Fast and efficient. Eventually, some of these loans will turn into grants of course. But that’s ok; the first-best response to a shock with asymmetric effects does involve transfers if markets are incomplete.

“Die SNB schuldet den Pensionskassen nichts (Nothing the SNB Owes to Pension Funds),” NZZ, 2019

NZZ, March 13, 2019. PDF. Updated: Ökonomenstimme, March 22, 2019. HTML.

  • Long-term real interest rates do not reflect monetary policy.
  • In the recent past, monetary policy has contributed to lower fixed-income interest rates but also to higher returns on other asset classes.
  • Complaining about low rates but not adjusting one’s portfolio makes little sense; there is no “financial repression.”
  • If politicians want to subsidize pension funds they should contribute funds from the government budget rather than asking the central bank to contribute.
  • Larger and earlier SNB dividend payouts to the government may not be in the government’s interest.

Swiss-German Media Quality

Two recent articles critically reflect on the quality of journalism in German speaking news, specifically in Switzerland. In the NZZ, Stephan Russ-Mohl reports about a study according to which in Switzerland, only 42 professors out of a sample of 1100 are regularly interviewed; they provide about half of the publicized statements. (In total, there are about 5500 professors in Switzerland.)

Eine Vielfalt wissenschaftlicher Stimmen gibt es in der Medienarena nicht: Von den 1100 der rund 5500 Professoren in der Schweiz, welche die Zürcher Forscher in ihrer Stichprobe erfasst haben, sind es ganze 42, die regelmässig von den Medien als Experten befragt werden und rund 50 Prozent aller Statements bestreiten. Die drei meistzitierten Medienstars der Schweizer Forscher sind Michael Hengartner (Molekularbiologe und Rektor der Universität Zürich), Michael Ambühl (Experte für Verhandlungsführung und Konfliktmanagement, ETH Zürich) und Kathrin Altwegg (Astrophysikerin, Universität Bern). Die meistgenannten Forschungsinstitutionen sind die Universität St. Gallen und das Hochschulinstitut für internationale Studien und Entwicklung in Genf.

In the NZZaS (other link), columnist Beat Kappeler explains that he has found it a waste of time to follow Swiss German radio, TV, or newspapers other than the NZZ. He argues that most German speaking news outlets lag the Financial Times and other Anglo-Saxon media by months or even years.

Ich habe bewusst in den letzten 40 Jahren nie TV geschaut, nie das deutschsprachige Schweizer Radio gehört, keine Deutschschweizer Presse gelesen ausser der NZZ …

[weil die angelsächsischen Quellen] mindestens drei Monate oder drei Jahre [voraus sind] …

Ihre Medien sind interessanter, kreativer und oft unkonventioneller. Die vielgekauten Themen Deutschlands und oft auch der deutschen Schweiz sagen mir nicht zu.

Negative Value Added of Switzerland’s Agricultural Sector

Farmers in Switzerland receive about CHF 2.7 billion in direct financial support annually. Total financial support by the federal and cantonal governments equals more than CHF 4 billion. But according to a report published by Zurich based think tank Avenir Suisse, this financial support constitutes just a minor part of the transfers from society at large to farmers, due to explicit and implicit subsidies, privileges, and—most importantly—negative externalities.

A list of privileges compiled by Avenir Suisse.

Avenir Suisse estimates the value added of Swiss agriculture to be hugely negative.

Die heutige Schweizer Landwirtschaft resultiert in einer negativen Wertschöpfung von minus 15,8 Mrd. Fr. pro Jahr. Damit kostet sie uns umgerechnet rund 1,8 Mio. Fr. pro Stunde.

In the NZZ, Nicole Rütti reports.