The SNB balance sheet at the end of December was about 85 per cent of GDP, mostly in foreign currencies, and we do not know whether this has increased markedly during the bout of euro weakness in January. The SNB’s mark-to-market currency losses on Thursday were probably around 13 per cent of GDP (SFr75bn). Paul Meggyesi of JPMorgan says that “the SNB would have been bankrupted by this de-pegging had it not made such a large profit last year”. The SFr38bn profit in 2014 was announced only last week, which is surely not a coincidence.
Many economists believe that balance sheet losses are irrelevant for a central bank, so they should play no role in policy. But the SNB is 45 per cent owned by private shareholders, many of whom are individuals, who receive dividends from the SNB. The rest is owned by the cantons, which have been complaining recently about insufficient cash transfers from the SNB.
This ownership structure contrasts sharply with most other central banks, which are in effect government departments, wholly owned by the treasury and therefore the taxpayer. The Swiss set-up makes the SNB particularly concerned about balance sheet losses, especially since disgruntled citizens can directly force changes in monetary and reserves policy via referendum.