Swiss play down inclusion on U.S. currency manipulation list

ZURICH (Reuters) - The Swiss government on Tuesday played down Switzerland’s reappearance on a U.S. Treasury watch list of potential currency manipulators, saying the status would have no immediate consequences.

Swiss 1,000-franc notes are seen in this picture illustration taken February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/Illustration

“The Swiss National Bank, according to its legal mandate, follows its own independent monetary policy,” the Swiss finance ministry said in a statement.

“Their currency purchases are not aimed at devaluing the currency and raising the competitiveness of Swiss exports,” it added. “Its goal is to limit the extent of the franc’s overvaluation and prevent a strong downward push in inflation.”

Switzerland, which was also mentioned by the Treasury last October, appeared along with China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany on the latest list which aims to curb what the U.S. calls “unfair currency practices”.

The Swiss qualified because for years they have used foreign exchange purchases to counter persistent inflows into the safe-haven franc. The SNB has also introduced negative interest rates to make the franc less attractive.

The SNB’s foreign exchange reserves jumped by nearly 15 billion Swiss francs ($14.93 billion) in March to 683.18 billion francs, larger than Swiss gross domestic product.

Sight deposits at the central bank, a proxy for currency interventions, showed the SNB continued to sell francs ahead of the French presidential elections starting on Sunday, according to the latest data on Tuesday.

The SNB was not immediately available for comment.

Instead of market interventions, Switzerland should rely more on fiscal policy and interest rates to support its economy and ward off demand for the franc, the U.S. Treasury said in its report on Friday.

Switzerland met two of its currency manipulation criteria -- having a material current account surplus at 10.7 percent of GDP in 2016 -- and having engaged in a “sizeable one-sided foreign exchange purchases”, the U.S. report said.

At $13.7 billion Switzerland did not however have enough of a bilateral trade surplus with the United States to meet the third criteria, which could trigger bilateral talks aimed at correcting the situation.

“As long as Switzerland is only on the watch list, it isn’t a problem,” said David Marmet, an economist at Zuercher Kantonalbank. “Switzerland fulfils two of the three criteria, but it cannot be long before the trade balance means it meets all three, when it could become a problem.

“Still the Swiss will try to explain to the Americans their situation,” Marmet said. “I think the SNB would prefer not to be on the list, but I don’t think it will affect its monetary policy – what else can they do?”

Additional reporting by Angelika Gruber, Editing by Michael Shields