Background Research Update – Swiss Gold Referendum. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party introduced a referendum entitled ‘Save our Swiss Gold’. On 30 November Swiss voters will decide whether or not to force the Swiss National bank (SNB) to hold 20% of foreign reserves as gold, stop the SNB selling gold, and to repatriate all Swiss gold held in foreign central bank vaults.
In order to fight the threat of deflation and support the economy, the SNB’s key policy is capping the gains of the Swiss Franc against the Euro at 1.20. A strong Franc hurts the competitiveness of the Swiss economy, so the SNB is trying to limit the gains of the Franc against the Euro, as the Eurozone is its main trading partner. The SNB’s currency policy has seen the central bank amass sizeable foreign currency reserves as it buys Euros to defend the 1.20 cap, which forms part of the SNB’s asset base.
The SNB’s gold reserves currently total around US$43bn, less than 10% of the SNB’s total assets. If the referendum is successful, the SNB would need to buy at least another 1500-2000 tonnes, equivalent to around 40% of total annual global gold supply (or around 60% of global mine production). Such demand would likely spur a significant and sharp gold price rise.
Historically the Franc has been viewed as a safe haven currency because it had a strong gold backing. As the central bank acquires more and more gold, it is probable that currency market views this as a positive for the currency and makes it harder for the central bank to achieve its aim for the currency. The SNB would also not be able to sell any gold under the proposal, which could also lead to gold being the majority of its asset base. Even if the central bank’s balance sheet contracts in future, it would be unable to sell gold previously bought, thereby exacerbating the problem.
Both the government and the SNB are against the gold referendum, viewing it as limiting their ability manage the economy. The SNB has indicated that being mandated to have to buy gold could mean that the market doubts the SNB’s resolve to buy large sums of Euros and gold if the referendum is passed. Clearly, the SNB’s credibility is at risk because the central bank will find it difficult to keep the Franc’s gains capped if it has to buy gold as well as Euros to defend the cap.
Regardless of how far-fetched investors believe the chance of a successful outcome for the referendum, Swiss voters have already shown nationalistic tendencies this year. In February, voters in Switzerland approved (by a narrow 50.3%) curbing immigration, ending the freedom of movement accord that had existed with the EU since 2002. Notably, the immigration referendum was also brought about by the same right-wing party, the SVP.
We expect the Swiss Franc to rally and test the SNB commitment to keeping its currency policy floor against the Euro if the gold referendum is passed. A ‘yes’ vote would mean that the CHF would have a stronger gold backing, raising its appeal for investors looking for hard asset exposure in an uncertain European economic climate. The more the CHF rises and the more Euros the SNB buys, the more gold it will need to accumulate, thereby exacerbating the problem.
We expect an initial gold rally if the referendum is passed, but the longer-term effects depend on the timing and source of gold that the SNB purchases. If the SNB buys gold on the open market, the price impact on gold is likely to be sustained as it represents additional demand. However, if it purchases gold off-market (from other central banks for example) it would not represent additional demand and the price effect would likely be transitory. The SNB has five years to achieve the gold target level of 20% of assets, but if it is seen to act in a timely fashion to build gold holdings, the effect on gold is likely to be more pronounced.
While recent polls have shown it is less likely the referendum is passed, a large proportion undecided voters will be key for the result. Nevertheless, the market appears not to have priced in the chance of ‘yes’ vote and we expect the risks for the Swiss Franc (and gold) are skewed to the upside.
This communication has been provided by ETF Securities (UK) Limited (“ETFS UK”) which is authorised and regulated by the United Kingdom Financial Conduct Authority (the “FCA”).