Making Sense of the Swiss Shock

For years, policymakers have been wondering whether the exit of a small, fiscally weak country like Greece could undermine the euro. Now, policymakers will have to deal with even bigger risks, stemming from the exit of a small, fiscally strong country that is not even a member of the European Union.

PRINCETON – Since the European sovereign-debt crisis erupted in 2009, everyone has wondered what would happen if a country left the eurozone. At first, the debate focused on crisis countries – Greece, or maybe Portugal, Spain, or Italy. Then there was a rather hypothetical discussion of what would happen if strong surplus countries – say, Finland or Germany – left.

Through it all, a consensus emerged that an exit by one country could – like the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – trigger a wider meltdown. Now, in Switzerland, we have a demonstration of just some of the risks that might emerge were a surplus country to leave the eurozone.

In September 2011, Switzerland pegged its currency to the euro to set a ceiling to the Swiss franc’s rapid appreciation in the wake of the global financial crisis that erupted in 2008. The country thus became a temporary adjunct member of the European monetary union. But, on January 15, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) suddenly and surprisingly abandoned the peg.

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