Equities have certainly had a good run this year so far, and there should still be more to come for European equities as long as the European economy continues its modest growth, with EuroStoxx still well below its highs and value relative to bonds looking excellent. But despite the strength of equities and good Eurozone data, EUR/CHF continues to test the lows, even on a day when the Swiss GDP data reports a disappointing 0.1% q/q and 0.6% y/y rise, underpinning the expectation of continued easy Swiss monetary policy. Why is the CHF so strong?
Well one reason is likely to be concern about European politics. The markets seem to have got themselves in a state worrying about the possibility of a Le Pen victory in France and even about Wilders in the Netherlands. People explain their concern by pointing to the victories for Brexit and Trump as illustrations of the populist movement sweeping the world and the unreliability of polls. But Brexit and Trump were not huge outside bets according to the polls. They were marginal outside bets. Sure, the markets seem to have treated Leave and Clinton as foregone conclusions, but that was never justified by the polls, which always suggested the votes would be close. But the polls don’t suggest Le Pen will be close to winning the French presidency. They suggests she needs to turn around 8 million French people Fascist in the next 2 months to win. That isn’t just unlikely, it’s wildly improbable in a way that the UK “Leave” vote and the US vote for Trump never were (at least not once he was the Republican candidate). Similarly, Wilders Freedom Party could just about be the largest party in the Dutch elections, but has effectively no chance of forming a coalition as no other party is prepared to join with them. Even with their most optimistic poll results, they will need double the seats they would achieve to form a government. So worries about European politics seem overblown, and European equities seem to get this, but the Swiss franc nevertheless remains near its highs.
This is puzzling because the Swiss franc is normally seen as a safe haven. Valuation wise it is always expensive relative to purchasing power parity (PPP) because it is seen as so safe. But safe havens will normally weaken in risk positive, strong equity environments, because safety is in less demand. The Swiss franc is a little weaker than it was at its peak, but it is lagging well behind the recovery in the European economy and European equities, even though yield spreads remain very unattractive with Swiss yields significantly negative out to 10 years.
So what will it take for the CHF to fall to more normal levels? The underlying problem is that money has stopped flowing out of Switzerland. Normally, surplus countries like Switzerland see heavy portfolio outflows looking for better returns elsewhere in the world, but the Swiss balance of payments data shows that portfolio outflows have effectively dried up since the crash. The SNB’s intervention has dealt with speculative and hedging flows – captured in the “other investment” category of the balance of payments – but until portfolio outflows recover properly they will not be enough to cover the current account surplus – which remains substantial. This will be required if the CHF is to reverse its uptrend. Of course, it would also at some stage make sense if the speculative flows that have gone into Swiss francs – making a tidy profit – were to go out as risks decline and appetite for foreign assets returns. This other investment category has totalled more than CHF410bn since the beginning of 2008, and has been offset by an increase in reserves of more than CHF600bn. If confidence returns, this cash should flow back out and push the Swiss franc back to fair value, which is around 10-15% below current levels.
When will this happen? Well there are obviously a lot of uncertainties. But if Le Pen doesn’t win, and Trump/the House Republicans produce a detailed infrastructure/tax reform proposal by the Spring the Swiss franc could be under pressure from May for the rest of the year.