Better economic situation thanks to lower inflationary pressures
The Swiss economy has been more resilient in 2023 and has a moderately better outlook for 2024 than its Western European neighbours. One big difference is that private consumption in Switzerland is relatively robust, supported by several factors. Due to the strong dependence on nuclear and renewables (especially hydropower), energy price pressures were lower than in many other Western European economies in recent years. Thanks to a strong Swiss Franc, imported inflation remained low. Accordingly, the Swiss inflation rate fell below the 2% target of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) in June 2023 and will likely remain there despite upward pressures coming from the property market. The mortgage reference interest rate (“hypothekarischer Referenzzinssatz”), given by the Swiss government to regulate the market and to guide banks, was raised from 1.25 to 1.5% in June 2023, but the full effect will only be felt over autumn 2023. Moreover, rents will increase further as landlords can transfer 40% of the inflation increase to their tenants. For 2024, the mortgage reference interest rate should remain unchanged. After increasing as much as inflation in 2023, wages are expected to outpace inflation in 2024, resulting in positive real wage growth. However, the main impact on private consumption comes from a sharp increase in the population, due to the highest level of immigration in the last 15 years. The University of Zürich estimates that the population has increased by 1.4% in 2023 and will further grow by 1.2% in 2024 (noticeably above the average of 0.8% in the last three years). As the labour market remains very tight, this will increase employment and bolster consumption in Switzerland.
The relatively low level of inflationary pressures led to a smaller increase of the policy rate by the SNB compared with other major central banks. Yet, given the still high level of inflation (by Swiss standards), the SNB should keep its policy rate unchanged - at its highest level since 2008 - until mid-2024 and then decide on the first single rate cuts in the second semester. The higher interest rates have a dampening effect on private investments. Nevertheless, they should still show some modest growth in the second half of 2023 and rise further in 2024. Although the manufacturing sector trembled somewhat in 2022 and the first half of 2023, the capacity utilization is relatively high, hinting at higher investments in equipment. More investments are expected too in the construction sector, as after a big push in investments in 2017, construction activity subsided in recent years. The vacancy rate eventually started to fall by mid-2023, and with an increasing population, construction investments should slightly increase in 2024. Finally, foreign trade should remain a positive driver for economic growth as many export products are in the luxury (watches) and high tech (pharma, medical, precision, etc.) segments, and therefore less dependent on the economic cycle.
Public accounts in good shape
After three years of deficits, the public accounts should have returned to a tiny surplus in 2023, as the debt brake (accounts must be balanced out via the complete economic cycle) came into effect again. While tax revenues should have increased noticeably and the expenses to integrate Ukrainian refugees are somewhat decreasing, the expenditure around the public transportation system and a subsidy for public employees to balance out inflation will limit the public budget surplus. In 2024, the measures to limit inflation’s impact on households should be lessened and likely lead to a larger surplus.
The country consistently posts a large current account surplus, thanks to the considerable goods surplus (in 2022: 15% of GDP). Despite finance and insurance, as well as sport licenses (e.g. the FIFA and IOC), playing an important role in the Swiss economy and external accounts, the services balance and the primary income balance (e.g. income from financial market operations abroad) are structurally in a small deficit. The structural deficit of the secondary income (transfer) balance adds to it, which is a result of foreign workers who work in Switzerland and send part of their income home. In 2022, a strong reduction in the trade in services deficit (maybe related to the UEFA world championship in Qatar in December) and an improvement in the goods trade surplus (related to the good terms of trade thanks to a strong Franc) led to a very high current account surplus. With the normalization of the services balance, the current account in 2023 should return to a level comparable with 2021 and should stay in this area in 2024.
Swiss assets abroad allow the country to have a substantial positive net foreign investment position (103% of GDP at the end of March 2023), the size of which varies with stock market prices and the USD/CHF exchange rate.
Stable domestic political situation, but hiccups in the foreign policy
Due to the Swiss tradition of political consensus, the political system is extremely stable. The main decisions are taken by plebiscites. The Federal Council (= government) comprises seven ministers. The position of the president is elected within this group for one year and alternates. Since 1959, the federal council is composed by the so-called “magic formula”, according to which the first three parties in the results of the general election get two seats in the Federal council and the fourth party gets one seat. As of summer 2023, the social democratic SP, the national-conservative SVP and the liberal FDP had two seats, while the Christian-democratic Center party had one seat. The next parliamentary election is scheduled for late October 2023. In the last election in 2019, the left-wing environmentalists (Greens) came in fourth place but did not get into the Council. The Council’s partisan composition only changes if the candidate party finishes in the top four in two consecutive elections. However, it does not seem that the Greens can repeat this success as in the current polls and in the state election in the Zürich canton (which is considered a good indicator for the whole country), the centre-right parties gained ground at the expense of the Greens.
Relations between Switzerland and the European Union are increasingly uncertain at a political level. In May 2021, negotiations around an all-embracing trade agreement collapsed at the last minute, after Switzerland walked away from the negotiation. Since then, the EU has refused to update the existing trade-agreements and to work out new ones, with negative effects on the trade of equities, the allocation of European Research grants, or the integration of Switzerland into the European electricity market, for instance. In March 2023, Switzerland announced a resumption of talks, but little progress was made during the first months.
Another critical topic in Switzerland became its neutrality in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Switzerland applied the EU sanctions against Russia because of its breach of international laws. The parliament also unveiled a proposed amendment of the Swiss War Material Act, which would allow purchasers of Swiss-manufactured weapons to re-export these goods to Ukraine (which is currently prohibited by law). However, this topic is very controversial. In June 2023, Switzerland vetoed a plan to export 96 retired Leopard tanks to Ukraine, because of the neutrality laws.