After going through all of 2014 without a losing streak of more than three days, the S&P 500 today completed its second slide of five straight days. The benchmark gauge is down 3.4 percent over the past five days.
For the past 3 years the Swiss have kept their currency, the Swiss franc, from getting too strong; they imposed a cap to keep the euro from trading below 1.20 francs. In early 2010 one franc was less than 0.7 euro. By the middle of 2011 the franc was nearly at parity against the euro, a massive move in a very short period. As the Eurozone experienced economic strife, Switzerland was calm and offered a safe haven. As money poured in, the franc became more and more expensive; which means that things made in Switzerland became more expensive when the Swiss exported. So, they capped the franc. That basically involved printing more francs and buying more euros.
Fast forward to 2015, and the Eurozone is once again experiencing economic strife; money is once again pouring into Switzerland as a safe haven, and after 3 years the Swiss just threw up their hands and said they had enough; it didn’t make sense for the Swiss National Bank to keep on an endless path of buying more and more euros just to keep the currency down, and there was probably some concern that they had too many euros, which might be a liability. So, they removed the cap, without warning. It was quite the surprise.
What does it mean? Well the Swiss franc spiked a whopping 30 percent against the euro. So, it you were planning a vacation to Zurich, it just got more expensive; for many people in Europe who have mortgages with Swiss banks, their mortgage payments just went up; if you were planning to buy a Swiss watch it just got more expensive; same for Swiss chocolates; and if you need a corkscrew that can also work as a screwdriver, pliers, wrench, and knife – that will cost you more. The Swiss stock market fell about 11%. And if you were invested in a company such as Swatch, Nestle, Novartis, or Roche – you just got hammered. Sorry. And if you were trading in the currency markets and you were short the franc and long the euro – please step away from the ledge.
Thursday’s decision to call time on its efforts to keep the euro from trading below 1.20 francs came amid mounting speculation that the European Central Bank will next week back a big government bond-buying program that will put more euros in circulation, diluting their value. That expectation has seen the euro face intense selling pressure in currency markets, particularly against the dollar. The euro has fallen to nine-year lows against the dollar and below its launch rate in 1999. As a result, the cost for the Swiss central bank of constantly defending the peg by buying euros or selling francs has been rising.
The SNB clearly expected to see a huge surge of inflows in the week ahead and saw little reason to provide these buyers of francs with an artificially cheap rate. Switzerland’s immediate neighbors are countries in the Eurozone. The franc’s contiguous boundaries are with the euro. Switzerland’s central bank worried about inflows of hot money from Russia, either directly or via the euro. Think of it this way: yesterday a Moscow-based oligarch could move money from ruble to euro. Then he could move it from euro to Swiss franc, and the Swiss government and Swiss National Bank would maintain a 1.2 currency peg. That is now over.
In addition to making Swiss exports more expensive, a stronger currency makes imports into Switzerland cheaper, further dampening prices already-subdued by big drops in oil prices and other commodities.
In an effort to contain the franc’s appreciation and limit any damage to the Swiss economy, the central bank on Thursday also lowered a key interest rate — what it charges commercial banks to deposit at the bank — to minus 0.75 percent from minus 0.25 percent. That’s right, banks have to pay the Swiss central bank to park reserves. The hope is that it dissuades banks from parking their cash at the national bank and instead possibly invest it. That might not work; the Swiss franc is still considered a safe haven for investors. The franc’s value will remain sensitive to developments around the world, including the crisis in Russia and the oil market slump.
Switzerland is a small country. For most people, the Swiss surprise really is not a huge event, but today’s move confirms that deflation is a clear and present threat to the global economy.
If you were planning a trip to Davos Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, we can save you some money. The WEF 2015 Global Risks Report was published today; geopolitical issues are considered to be the biggest threat to global stability over the coming decade. According to the WEF’s lead economist, “Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world again faces the risk of major conflict between states,” and the means to wage such conflict are broader than ever, whether through cyberattack, competition for resources or sanctions and other economic tools. “Addressing all these possible triggers and seeking to return the world to a path of partnership, rather than competition, should be a priority for leaders as we enter 2015.” When asked to assess risks in terms of their potential impact, the nearly 900 experts surveyed by WEF found water crises as the greatest threat to the world.
US producer prices in December recorded their biggest fall in more than three years on tumbling energy costs while underlying inflation pressures were muted. The Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand declined 0.3 percent, the biggest drop since October 2011, after falling 0.2 percent in November. A sustained plunge in energy prices is keeping a lid on inflation throughout the pipeline, from bills for businesses to the consumer’s cost of living.
The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits increased to a four-month high last week.
Consumer confidence increased last week to the highest level since mid-2007 as steady declines in gasoline prices and more hiring boosted Americans’ attitudes about the economy. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to 45.4 in the period ended January 11, from 43.6 the week before.
Bank of America, the second-largest US bank by assets, reported a 14 percent fall in quarterly profit as a decline in sales and trading revenue more than offset a big drop in operating expenses. Revenue from bond trading, which is part of the bank’s sales and trading business, plunged 30 percent to $1.46 billion.
Citigroup reported its fourth-quarter profit plunged as the bank was hit by large legal charges. The bank reported a profit of $350 million–which includes $3.5 billion in previously disclosed legal and repositioning charges–compared with a year-earlier profit of $2.46 billion. On a per-share basis, Citigroup reported a profit of six cents. Analysts had expected earnings of nine cents a share including the charges. On Wednesday, a provision — drafted by Citigroup — to repeal part of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms (Section 716) was added by House Republicans to their spending bill. On Thursday, Citigroup led the charge to persuade enough Democrats to vote for that bill. The repeal of Section 716 stayed in the spending bill only because Wall Street brought so much pressure and influence to bear. Apparently buying politicians is cheaper than paying fines and settlements for violating the law. Of course, I still maintain that not breaking the law is the best solution, but clearly that is not under consideration.
Bank of America slipped 5.2 percent to the lowest since August and Citigroup dropped 3.7 percent.
After the close, Intel reported fourth quarter net income rose to $3.66 billion, or 74 cents per share, for the quarter ended Dec. 27, from $2.6 billion, or 51 cents per share, a year earlier. Revenue rose to $14.7 billion from $13.8 billion. Intel forecast first-quarter sales that may fall short of analysts’ estimates because PC sales are down.
We’re starting to see some oil companies respond to lower oil prices. Schlumberger, the oilfield services provider, announced it will cut 9,000 jobs, even as they reported a 6 percent rise in quarterly revenue. Revenue rose to $12.64 billion from $11.91 billion. Net income attributable to the Houston, Texas-based company fell to $302 million, or 23 cents per share, in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, from $1.66 billion, or $1.26 per share, a year earlier.
Apache says it will also lay off several hundred employees, cutting 5% of its workforce this week. The move signals one of the first major workforce cuts at an American oil producer after the recent drop in crude prices. Apache had been profitable until the third quarter of last year, when it reported a $1.2 billion loss.
BP is planning to cut 300 jobs from its 4,000-strong North Sea business following a review of its operations. The U.K.-based oil major, which has been downsizing since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, said it had long planned the cuts, but was speeding up the process due to falling oil prices.
This afternoon, there was more news on BP. A US District judge has ruled that the company dumped 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Today’s ruling on the spill’s size sets the stage for a trial next week at which the judge will determine the amount of the fines, based on the law’s provision for as much as $4,300 per barrel released and factors such as what BP did to minimize or mitigate the effects of the disaster. The court rejected the government’s 4.2 million barrel estimate of the spill size, decreasing the potential maximum fine from $18 billion to a maximum fine of $13.7 billion.