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Switzerland’s vote to change its monetary system – sensible or silly?

Sometimes Swiss voters are presented with questions that only specialists are equipped to answer. The vote on 10 June 2018 to change their monetary system appears to be one of these.

Swiss franc

© Valeriya Potapova | - Click to enlarge

On the surface it appears simple. Upon closer inspection it contains much complexity and uncertainty, compounded by a widespread misunderstanding of how the financial system works – banks do not act simply as intermediaries, lending out the deposits that savers place with them, nor do they multiply central bank money.

The initiative would bring two major changes. Firstly, it would prevent commercial banks from creating money – more on modern money creation. This task would become the exclusive domain of the Swiss National Bank (SNB), Switzerland’s central bank.

Hansruedi Weber, a retired primary school teacher and one of the initiators, says that banks can create money in unlimited quantities. However, commercial bank money creation is constrained by capital and reserve requirements and the demand for loans, something constrained in part by interest rates. It is not a free-for-all system.

It is true that commercial banks get a freeride off taxpayers – banks are funded by deposits that are implicitly guaranteed by the government. This susidises banks and promotes risky behaviour and is an obvious flaw in the system. Governments have reduced this problem by imposing tougher reserve and capital requirements on banks, however this has not eliminated the weakness.

Secondly, the initiative would change the way the central bank puts new money into the system. New money would be given to the government and the people. The premise here is that governments and people will do a better job of allocating funds than banks.

The initiators claim these measures would improve the stability of the financial system by shifting all money creation into the responsible hands of the SNB, and, benefit society by giving new money to the government or people, from where it would be better invested. They also argue their system would reduce the risk of bank runs, government bailouts and asset bubbles.

Both the Federal Government and SNB disagree.

The SNB says its ability to ensure financial stability would be seriously hampered. Currently, one of its two main tools for managing the money supply is the buying and selling of assets – when it buys assets it releases francs into the system. When it sells assets francs comes out. The proposed system would remove this tool. The SNB would be able to put money in by giving it to the government or the people, but would have no way to take money out.

In addition, the central bank could become ensnared in politics. Imagine if everyone got 1,000 francs from the SNB last year and politicians called for another 1,000 francs this year. The bank might get politically prodded into doing things opposed to financial stability.

Both of these changes would affect not only the central bank’s effectiveness but also its credibility.

In addition, the SNB thinks that any benefits that might come from the plan would be small compared to the negative economic impact it could have on the wider economy and the value of the Swiss franc if the country’s financial stability was questioned.

Also, the SNB says that asset bubbles are born from exaggerated price expectations and an underestimation of risks. Lending can reinforce them but does not create them. Changing the way the central bank operates will not give it control over these forces.

While there are clearly weaknesses in the current system, like the need for government bank bailouts in a crisis and the implicit subsidy that comes with this, the position of the Federal Government and SNB on this proposal is clear: the plan has flaws and would be a big step into the unknown that could have nasty unintended consequences.

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About Le News
Le News
The newspaper Le News is a free, quality, local English language newspaper launched on 31 October 2013. Le News fills a gap in local Swiss media for the numerous English-speakers living and visiting Switzerland. In late January 2015 we decided to put our print medium on hold and focus on our digital media presence.
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