The franc is the currency of both Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It is also the legal tender in both countries, as well as the geographically separate Italian territory of Campione d'Italia. The Swiss franc (ISO code: CHF) is the only version of the franc still used in Europe. +
Believed to be an integral part of Swiss history, the franc is regarded as far more than just legal tender, but as a testament to the political and economic decisions that have made Switzerland's economy a safe haven.
1850: The Swiss Franc
Between 1803 and 1850, less than a quarter of the currency in Switzerland was produced within the country. The monetary system became complicated as private banks started issuing banknotes, and by 1848 there were more than 8,000 different banknotes and coins in circulation.
After the 27-day Sonderbund War concluded, the constitution was modified to create the Federal Constitution of 1848, which officially enforced the principle of democracy. This creation of a federal state meant that for the first time, Switzerland was to be governed by a central government, and not a selection of independent cantons.
In 1850, the new federal government sought to find a solution to the monetary confusion. The first Federal Coinage Act was passed by the French Assembly, on 7 May 1850. This act officially introduced the Swiss franc, on par with the French franc, as the monetary system of Switzerland. Unlike most banks during the era of the gold standard, the act did not provide a definitive basis of gold for the Swiss currency. Instead, being on par with the French franc, it was tied to the French measurement of currency for a weight in silver.
1840s - 1860s: Discovery Of Gold's Impact
The California Gold Rush in the 1840s, as well as the discovery of gold in Australia, drove up the market price of silver relative to gold. Silver coins were often removed from circulation and melted, creating a lack of small coins for trading. Many countries moved to produce silver coins of a lower standard, with a metallic value less than their face value. In January 1860, Switzerland reduced the purity of her silver coins by 20%, and investors made the move to purchase higher quality Belgian and French coins with lower quality silver francs.
1865: The Latin Monetary Union
In 1864, small silver Swiss francs were banned from France, as the French reduced the quality of their own silver coins by 16.5%, just as Italy had done in 1862. Belgium, having adopted the silver standard in 1850, produced new 5 franc silver coins. These were immediately bought up by investors in exchange for old worn French francs of lesser silver weight.
In 1865, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and France formed the Latin Monetary Union (LMU). Recognising the opportunity to increase price transparency and lower transaction costs, the union agreed to value their national currencies at 0.290322 grams of gold, or 4.5 grams of silver. Switzerland held to the exchange rate until 1936. Greece joined the union in 1868.
The agreement also included the acceptance of coins of all member states to minimise the flow of minor silver coins. Swiss coins were circulated throughout the 1860s and 1870s along with those belonging to the other countries of the LMU. In 1878 the minting of the silver 5 francs was suspended and the remaining coins later became tokens, as the countries began the shift to an existing gold standard.
1881: Standardisation of Bank Notes
At the turn of the 19th century, Switzerland and her economy were dependent on international financial markets. Much of her foreign financing was accrued in the Parisian market, and Switzerland was considered an addition to the French markets. The difference in the Swiss-French interest and discount rates provided a motive for an incoming flow of capital, with Swiss rates set higher than Parisian rates. The Banque de France was essentially the central bank of Switzerland until 1870, when the French bank was shaken by the Franco-Prussian War. At that time, France ceased convertibility and Swiss banks no longer accepted French banknotes.
Gradually, Switzerland shifted towards a central bank, despite the success of its free banking methods. Before 1881, bank notes were issued at the government level, though the process was unregulated. A new law restricted both the incorporated and cantonal (regional) banks from issuing notes, requiring both to hold a minimum metallic reserve. Swiss banks were also required to accept notes from each other, along with a new banknote design and denomination.
1907: Swiss National Bank
The formation of the LMU led to a major currency drain, increased by shortages in coins. Speculators invested in silver coins by paying with Swiss banknotes, exporting the coins to Paris, then drawing bills that the Swiss issuing banks were then forced to buy back. These trades cost the bank extensively, and by 1899 the Banque de Geneve halted the issuing of banknotes. The remaining issuing banks agreed to combine the costs of shipping silver from France to Switzerland in an effort to curb trade losses. Compounding these losses was the weakness of the Swiss franc due to over-issue by the public and private note-issuing banks.
By 1906, 234 million francs had been issued, from a maximum availability of 244.7 million. The government moved to establish a central Swiss bank, but the pace was slow due to disagreements between disparate factions of radical liberals, conservatives, economic liberals, and anti-centralists (known as the "business pressure group"). The leader of the business pressure group proposed the notion of a privately-owned bank that would not allow for public control or state socialism in the credit policy. This was shortly followed by a debate about where the bank should be located and the methods regarding profit distribution. An agreement was reached in 1905 for the bank to be based both in Zurich and Berne, without reservations on the disadvantages of dual headquarters.
In the first year, the Swiss National Bank faced dramatic challenges, as both the Bank of England and the Reichsbank raised their official rate to 7.5%. In a sharp contrast, the Swiss National Bank slowly raised its official rate to a total of 5.5%, isolating the domestic economy from international changes and disturbances. The sole purpose of the bank was, according to the President of the Bank Council, to regulate the circulation of the Swiss franc and to facilitate payments.
There had been little time to create and print new Swiss franc banknotes, and in the interim, a red rosette and the Swiss cross were printed over the older notes still in service. As World War I loomed, the Swiss National Bank shifted their focus to that of a "war bank" with the goal of discounting federal treasury bills and federal railway bills. By 1918, the rediscounting made up 55% of the Swiss National Bank's portfolio.
1914 - 1918: World War I
In the build-up to World War I, Switzerland was considered one of the wealthiest nations in Europe, due to a successful industrial sector. Firms based in Switzerland were leading global sales in machinery and electrical, metal, textile, food, chemical and pharmaceutical products. Tourism was an income generator, and the employment of people in the Alpine area was high. Swiss finance companies channelled foreign investment into major developments around the world.
Just under half of Swiss exports were purchased by Italy, and 28% to the Central Powers. Switzerland also exported goods to France, the U.K. and the U.S. As war approached, the Allied forces and the Central Powers forced two-fold trade with control over exports and imports. The Treuhandstelle Zürich (STS) was established to regulate trade with the Central Powers, and the Société Suisse de Surveillance Economique (SSS) with the Allies. The SSS grew to be much stronger than the STS as they weakened their enemies.
Switzerland remained neutral in the war. This neutrality increased tension between the German-speaking Swiss and their French and Italian countrymen as they were forced to join the military. All three groups were ordered to guard the Swiss borders for periods of 100 days without compensation for loss of income, leaving them with little money once the war was concluded.
Within the first months of the war, the Swiss National Bank declared itself a war bank of the state, with the intention to return to a pre-war peaceful state as soon as possible. The decision to finance the war efforts through currency-issuing led to a major rise in inflation. For many, this was a benefit leading to the reversal of the balance-of-payments deficit, and farmers, as well as the timber, chemical, metallurgical and watchmaking industries, flourished as they served both groups.
The cost of war weighed greatly on Switzerland, despite their lack of involvement. Debt increased to 45% of GDP, with total spending on cantons, communes and the confederation falling at 15% of GDP. Mobilisation costs in 1917 totalled 300 million Swiss francs, with a total of 458 million spent throughout the war.
1918: The National Strike
The economic hardship created by the war increased political agitation as distress peaked. A national strike was called, but it quickly crumbled under the threat of the deployment of troops, with only four fatalities. However, the Spanish Flu, a worldwide influenza pandemic, swept through the country, infecting and killing many men that had been mobilised in the strike.
According to the Swiss National Bank, the rise in inflation was caused by price increases of items imported to Switzerland, which led to an increase in the issuing of notes. Import prices did affect the costs of Swiss wholesale and retail items, but there was little evidence that this in turn caused the rise-in-note issue. Nor did it spark the issuing of additional notes used by the government to fund their defence needs (Reskriptionen). The bank recorded an intake of 58 million francs in 1914 and 312 million by 1918, arguing that Reskriptionen played a major role in increasing the issuance of notes. The bank ascertained that the large volume of notes circulating in foreign countries did not actually form part of the Swiss money supply.
The Swiss National Bank fell under much pressure from the Federal Department of Finance, pushing for the revision of the National Bank Act. In a bid to relieve political pressure, the bank moved to return to a fixed new exchange rate. During the war, the LMU became defunct and high inflation rates took hold in Italy and France. The central reference currency shifted to the USD. The Swiss National Bank agreed to keep the dollar rate stable, without declaring any movements toward the gold standard. The British pound returned to its pre-war rate of 4.86 pounds to the USD.
1920s: US Stock Exchange Crash
The crash of the U.S. stock exchange in 1929 affected economies across the world, although the effect on Switzerland was initially not as extreme. Some industries were able to recover, while others disappeared. With a shortage of housing and the need for more residential space, the construction industry flourished. Swiss companies filed for credit from the banks, and the stock exchange faltered slightly. By 1936, the total unemployment sat at 125,000 people.
Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland were able to stabilise their currencies at prewar parity, to either the USD or gold. The Swiss National Bank maintained this across the war and postwar period. In 1924, the bank announced its intention to stabilise the franc at US$5.16 to CHF5.21, thereby re-establishing prewar parity. The bank affirmed this decision in 1925, leading to pressure on Switzerland to buy up USD and ending the flexibility of exchange rates.
From 1925 to 1929, the Swiss economy grew at 45%, and levels of unemployment decreased drastically, along with the price of food and resources. Switzerland had not been required to redeem its monetary notes in gold, and therefore did not yet fulfill all of the obligations established by the gold standard. Concerned about the risk should any reserve currencies waver, the Swiss National Bank intended to return to the gold standard but at the right time. In December 1929 full gold convertibility was established, and notes were redeemable for gold currencies or gold.
Switzerland held 33.1% foreign exchange reserves by 1930. By July 1931, with Germany financially paralysed and with nervousness in English financial circles, the Swiss National Bank agreed to halt its practice of purchasing limitless GBP. In August 1931, the bank bought 332,000 pounds worth of gold in exchange for sterling, and in September another £500,000. When England uncoupled the pound from the gold standard at the end of September, Switzerland had very little reserves invested. During 1931, Switzerland had essentially joined the classic gold standard.
Despite British, Scandinavian and Latin American countries leaving the gold standard in 1931, Switzerland formed an isolated gold bloc with the Netherlands and France. By 1933, the United States and some Latin American countries left the gold standard as well. Initially, remaining on the gold standard generated a significant flow of capital into Switzerland. This however would open the country up to potential attacks should the need for an outflow of francs into foreign currency arise. Switzerland maintained gold parity longer than other countries, though it reduced the gold content of the franc by 30% and suspended gold convertibility in 1936.
The bank presented the gold standard as anti-inflationary and stabilising. It used this rationale to increase the circulation of Swiss francs, ultimately raising inflationary pressure. Policyholders became aware of the situation they were stuck in but made no movements to address it in fear of destabilising the economy. Once the British financial crisis struck, an internal document was circulated around the Swiss National Bank that encouraged the resistance of devaluation. This resistance would ultimately increase the cost of imports and increase general prices.
1920: The League Of Nations
The League of Nations was established in 1920. In a vote taken by the Swiss people, a small majority of citizens were in favour of joining the League, with the understanding that Switzerland would retain "differential neutrality" and not participate in military sanctions. The opposition to joining came in favour of supporting Germany and Austria, which had not been included in the League.
This began a power struggle between the communist and fascist movements, with communism as the less popular ideology. The ambiguity caused Switzerland's failure to condemn the invasion of Abyssinia by Italy in 1935, and its sanctions on Germany after Adolf Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. The Swiss also refused to recognise communist Russia, standing against the Communist Union of the USSR and opposing the inclusion of Russia into the League of Nations in 1934.
1939: World War II
As WWII war approached, Switzerland retained its goal of preserving independence and staying neutral. In the 1930s Switzerland had already rapidly increased its budget for defence, including arming and training recruits. When war broke out, 200,000 reserve troops were ready as 430,000 combat troops prepared to be mobilised. Switzerland's defence strategy focused on preventing Germany from moving south of the French Maginot and into Switzerland. When France fell, Italian and German forces surrounded Switzerland. It was agreed that Switzerland would leave the Alpine transit route open for the Axis powers, provided they left Switzerland alone.
Before the war, Germany was Switzerland's biggest trading partner. In accordance with the German military's demand for supplies, Switzerland increased its imports and allowed Germany to buy on credit. Germany supplied Switzerland with coal, iron and seeds in exchange for strategic and military material, as well as watches, machines, tools and aluminium. However, the Swiss National Bank stood to benefit the most, as it purchased gold to the value of 1.2 billion Swiss francs, that Germany had looted from western European central banks.
As the war progressed, Switzerland's dependency on the Axis powers increased, resulting in Switzerland importing more than it was exporting. The net surplus trade from Germany totalled 1.2 billion Swiss francs for the duration of the war, with an export total of 121 million Swiss francs. In order to maintain this trade relationship, the Swiss government allowed a loan of 960 million Swiss francs to countries falling within the German bloc.
Switzerland maintained a trading relationship with Western allies by purchasing large amounts of gold from Britain and the United States. The allies used Swiss francs to cover costs of intelligence services and to aid the Red Cross.
The years following the end of WWII found Switzerland compromised, as it had maintained its relationship with Germany until she fell. The U.S. was reluctant to formally recognise Switzerland as neutral, whereas the European powers were more willing. In 1946 the United States and Western Allies pressured Switzerland to compensate for the stolen gold it had purchased from Germany, totalling 250 million Swiss francs.
1945: Bretton Woods
In 1945, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were established at Bretton Woods, with the intention of establishing a new monetary system. Switzerland did not join the Bretton Woods Agreement but adhered to the exchange rate rules specified within the system. Gold was fixed at US$35 per ounce when sold to other central banks.
In 1971 Nixon brought Bretton Woods to an end, dissolving the dollar as a fixed currency and terminating the convertibility of the USD to gold. Public and trade deficits caused by the Vietnam War led to an appreciation of the franc, and the USD to the CHF shifted from US$4.35 to US$2.35.
1973: Oil Crisis
Germany was the first country to achieve a trade surplus, which it converted partly into gold and kept within the country. Switzerland achieved surpluses and accumulated FX and gold reserves.
Despite a recession forcing expansive monetary policies, the Swiss National Bank joined with Germany in allowing the supply of money to rise slowly, through a reasonably high interest rate and by using a minimum reserve for banks. The 1973 oil crisis set about a movement for change, as OPEC member countries took control of their domestic oil and petroleum industries. This led to the Arab oil embargo in 1973. The barrel price for oil increased to US$12, from US$3, causing a dramatic accumulation of wealth for the oil-exporting countries.
The Swiss National Bank intervened when the real effective exchange rate shifted to 110 from 90, establishing a minimum rate of CHF at 0.80. The bank was forced to increase their monetary base by 17% through the process of buying dollars for 6.6%.
For Switzerland, the opportunity to remain dependent on the oil supply from the OPEC cartel remained, as the distance between oil-supplying countries and the Swiss mainland was short. In 1976 the franc weakened, leading to a lower GDP, and the exodus of many foreign workers from Switzerland. As the popularity of smaller cars and a prohibition on private transport grew, overall energy consumption in Switzerland decreased by 1977.
1985: The Plaza Accord
Signed by the G-5 nations, the Plaza Accord was a pledge by the largest economies in the world. The agreement held that the U.S. would reduce its federal deficit, which sat at a GDP of 3.5%. Japan would ease up on monetary policy, and Germany committed to cut its taxes. The overvalued dollar fell, which made room for the Swiss National Bank to raise their supply of money and initiate a real estate boom. As capital flowed into Germany, Japan and Switzerland, their currencies gained strength.
The Swiss National Bank periodically allowed an increase in money supply and reduced the interest rate after the 1987 Black Monday crash, in order to prevent appreciation of the franc. The price of real estate doubled over the period of 1980 to 1990.
1988: Capping The Franc
The first electronic payment systems were introduced in 1988. This reduced the need for cash in hand, but the supply of money continued to increase. As German spending rose along with inflation, the Swiss franc expanded. The Swiss Bank predicted that the German expenditure boom would not end in the foreseeable future. Wages and prices increased as inflation grew by 6.6%, hitting the real estate market hard.
1998: Swiss Inflation
German imports of Swiss products forced a rise in inflation at the start of the 1990s, reaching 6.6% by 1991. The sudden rise drove the cost of goods up, leading to the Swiss market becoming uncompetitive. The Swiss employment rate hung at 82%, often relying on unskilled European workers with wages rising as steadily as the housing market. The rise in inflation led to sluggish economic growth, with rising incomes and trade surpluses, despite the low GDP growth.
Swiss money supply targets were replaced with the "Concept 2000" inflation-targeting strategy, with the aim of achieving price-stability from 0% to 2% in consumer price inflation over the long term.
2008: Worldwide Recession
The fourth-largest bank in the U.S. filed for bankruptcy, triggering a collapse of the U.S. economy and creating a global financial and economic crisis. Although the crisis did reach Switzerland, the damage was not as initially predicted. Two of the Swiss National Bank's economic partners, the U.S. and the EU, were the hardest hit. The drop in the USD pushed an appreciation of the franc, and the cost of exported goods increased dramatically. The strong franc allowed for Swiss companies to produce niche, high quality products, and protected Switzerland from sinking deeply into recession.
2011: Euro Exchange Rate
The franc continued to grow against the euro and became known as a safe haven currency. European investors regarded the franc as an opportunity, and converted millions of euro into Swiss francs for safety as the strength of the euro wavered. The demand for the franc caused an increase in its value and in the value of Swiss products. The flow of money into Switzerland created a price gap and rendered products uncompetitive, forcing Switzerland to reassess as 56% of all goods were exported.
Tension grew in the eurozone and a new crisis emerged, pushing the franc upwards again. The Swiss National bank made a highly-criticised move to attempt to equalize the supply and demand of market goods, and a minimum exchange rate was introduced. The cap was set at CHF1.20 to EUR1[rn ref="27"], essentially pegging the currency to the euro. Compared to other economies, the Swiss economy managed to pull through the 2008 crisis without a major accumulation of debt.
2015: End Of Euro Cap
By 2014, the Swiss GDP had grown by 75%, and the Swiss National Bank remained committed to its cap on the franc. But in 2015, the Swiss National Bank, reevaluating its economic promise to the EU, ended the cap on the value of the franc to the euro. The move caught many off guard, and panic ensued, shifting the value of the euro by 30%, and drastically affecting economies that had borrowed Swiss francs at the capped exchange rate. The removal of the cap reduced the need to print francs and ended the road to hyperinflation. The Swiss National Bank announced the start of negative interest rates, including the interest on current accounts from 0.5% to -0.75%
The Swiss National Bank intervened discreetly by buying up foreign currency, setting the franc at around CHF1.08 to the euro, and ensuring the franc did not drastically appreciate again. At the end of 2015 Swiss GDP per capita stood at CHF 77943.
2020: Economic Freedom
The Swiss economy is well established, with a freedom score of 82.0 and the title of fifth-freest economy in 2020. The total market value of imports and exports sits at 118.8% of GDP. With a mature and well structured financial sector, banking remains stable and highly capitalized.
The strong franc has forced the Swiss National Bank to spend millions in securing the euro, in order to protect the franc from major deflation. The top priority of the Swiss National Bank is to maintain price stability, although it is understood that the franc is overvalued. Between 2017 and 2018, the bank remained uninvolved in the currency market, but resumed intervention to weaken the franc. After gaining negative attention from the U.S. Treasury report, Switzerland has again met two criteria deemed evidence of currency manipulation. These are an account surplus equating to 10.7% and a total bilateral trade surplus of US$21.8 billion. The proposed cap of 2% will equal a yearly intervention of CHF 14 billion.
Despite the threat of COVID-19, the Swiss government has budgeted CHF65 billion Swiss francs to boost the economy, as well as CHF40 billion in available emergency loans. The government has also proposed a total of CHF154 million in support for fledgling companies. Businesses that are drowning in debt have been thrown a lifeline, and have the opportunity to apply for a debt grace period of three months.
Senior Market Specialist
Russell Shor (MSTA, CFTe, MFTA) is a Senior Market Specialist at FXCM. He joined the firm in October 2017 and has an Honours Degree in Economics from the University of South Africa and holds the coveted Certified Financial Technician and Master of Financial Technical Analysis qualifications from the International Federation…