Swiss franc's massive surge, the most in decades, hit firms around the world
The scale and speed of the Swiss franc's staggering ascent in what is one of the world's most-traded currencies caught many financial firms unprepared –for some smaller firms proved to be too much.
London — The financial shockwaves from the Swiss franc's staggering ascent, one of the most acute moves in decades by a major currency, have hit firms around the world, with at least two brokerages going out of business.
Though currency markets were a bit calmer Friday, with the euro up 2.5 percent at 1.0176 francs, the repercussions from the previous day's move are being felt from New York to New Zealand via London.
At one point Thursday, the franc surged around 30 percent against the euro in the minutes after the SwissNational Bank, or SNB, said it was ditching an increasingly expensive policy to limit the export-sapping rise of the currency. Derek Halpenny, a currency strategist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, described the currency move as "unprecedented." He's not alone in thinking that.
The scale and speed of the move in what is one of the world's most-traded currencies caught many financial firms unprepared. While holders of Swiss francs gained, those with sizeable holdings of euros or dollars against the franc would have suffered heavily.
While big banks can absorb big losses on markets, for some smaller firms, the volatility in the franc proved too much.
Alpari, the London-based brokerage firm that sponsors the shirt of English Premier League football club West Ham United, said it had to shut down its business.
In a statement, the firm said the majority of its clients sustained losses which exceeded their account equity. "Where a client cannot cover this loss, it is passed on to us," it said. "This has forced Alpari (UK) Limited to confirm today that it has entered into insolvency."
The scale of anger within the firm is evident in a note that its market analyst, Craig Erlam, published Friday before news of the wind-down. Bemoaning the "idiotic actions of the SNB," Erlam warned over the "longer term impact on the markets."
Alpari's demise follows that of Global Brokers NZ., a small currency trading house in New Zealand.
Its director, David Johnson, announced on the website of affiliate Excel Markets, that it could no longer meet the regulatory minimum to continue business.
"News of the impact of this event on companies and traders is just beginning to come to light," he said. "As directors and shareholders we would like to offer our sincerest apologies for this devastating turn of events."
The two could be joined by FXCM, a New York-based currency broker, which has already warned that it "may be in breach of some regulatory capital requirements" after its clients experienced significant losses. Those losses, it said in a statement, "generated negative equity balances owed to FXCM of approximately $225 million."
Traders aren't hopeful. FXCM shares are down a staggering 74 percent in pre-market trading following a 15 percent fall on Thursday.
Other firms, such as CMC Markets in London, said they can absorb the hit. Though its chief executive, Peter Cruddas, conceded that the firm sustained losses, he said the overall impact has not materially impacted the group. "It's business as usual," he insisted.
The decision by the Swiss central bank to call time on its efforts to prevent the euro from trading below 1.20 francs was a huge surprise. It came amid mounting speculation that the European Central Bank will next week back a big stimulus program that will put more euros in circulation which would further dilute their value.
As the outlook for the euro has darkened, the cost for the Swiss central bank of defending its policy by buying euros or selling francs has risen.
Though the timing of the Swiss decision proved a surprise, most foreign exchange experts thought the policy, called a peg, would have to be abandoned, just as previous such efforts had. In 1992, for example, the British pound suffered similarly dramatic losses as it crashed out of a fixed exchange-rate system that was then operating in Europe.
"The history of currency pegs is that they are susceptible to changes in economic fundamentals that warrant a completely different level in the exchange rate," said Neil MacKinnon, global macro strategist at VTB Capital.
The market impact was not limited to currencies. Switzerland's stock market tanked almost 9 percent on Thursday and was down another 4 percent on Friday. The country's government bond yields, meanwhile, went below zero.
The bond movement is due in part to the Swiss central bank's decision on Thursday to also cut a key interest rate to -0.75 percent from -0.25 percent. The unusual move is meant to limit the strength of the franc by making returns on Swiss investments weaker.
Switzerland's 10-year bond yield was -0.03 percent, meaning an investor would have to effectively pay to lend money to the Swiss government.
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