Making Sense of the Swiss Shock

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.

Obviously, exiting a real currency union is far more complex and legally fraught than ending a temporary exchange-rate arrangement; the effects of such a move would be greatly magnified. Nonetheless, the Swiss move reveals at least some of the uncertainties that a full-fledged exit could create.