March 25, 2019 / 2:58 PM / 6 months ago

Swiss National Bank's reserve assets rise as trade balance widens

ZURICH, March 25 (Reuters) - Switzerland’s central bank continued to acquire foreign currency at the end of 2018, data showed on Monday, as the country’s quarterly trade surplus widened to 15.2 billion Swiss francs ($15.31 billion).

The current account surplus in the fourth quarter rose from a 12.9 billion franc surplus a year earlier, due to higher receipts from investment income from abroad, although there was a lower excess from the sale of goods and services.

Reserve assets recorded a net acquisition of 2.8 billion francs, a similar level to a year earlier, but down from 4.9 billion francs during the third quarter of 2018, the SNB said.

The figure showed the SNB could have been buying foreign currencies to weaken the safe-haven Swiss franc albeit on a reduced scale. It can also reflect an increase in the valuation of the SNB’s foreign currency holdings.

Maintaining its ultra-loose monetary stance last week, the SNB said it would “remain active in the foreign exchange market as necessary.”

The expansion of its reserve assets showed how difficult it would be for the SNB to reduce its balance sheet in future, said Alessandro Bee, an economist at UBS.

The SNB has built up a balance sheet of 773 billion francs of foreign currency holdings at the end of 2018, a figure bigger than the entire Swiss economy.

The investments, bought with newly created francs, make the SNB’s earnings volatile and have also led to Switzerland appearing on a U.S. Treasury monitoring list of currency manipulators.

“The SNB’s first priority will be to raise interest rates into positive territory and it will be 5 to 10 years before they can start looking at the balance sheet,” said Bee.

Last week, the SNB revealed it had drastically cut back its foreign currency interventions to a “modest” 2.3 billion Swiss francs ($2.32 billion) during 2018. ($1 = 0.9925 Swiss francs) (Reporting by John Revill)

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