In conducting the country’s monetary policy, the SNB’s primary goal is to ensure price stability while taking due account of economic developments – as stipulated in law. In other words, the SNB’s job is to make sure that money retains its value and that the Swiss economy develops appropriately.
Other important tasks of the SNB include the issuance of banknotes and coins, as well as the oversight of cashless payment transactions. The SNB also acts as banker to the Confederation, settling payments, issuing bonds and managing securities on its behalf. Finally, the SNB works closely with the Federal Department of Finance (FDF) and the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) to ensure the stability of the Swiss financial system.
The SNB is active not only in Switzerland, but also – mostly in conjunction with the Federal authorities – in international organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Financial Stability Board (FSB), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS).
In some respects, the SNB is a company like any other. However, certain features make it unique. The SNB is the sole institution in Switzerland with the right to issue banknotes; as the country’s central bank, it alone manages the national supply of money. A further special feature is its legal form, which is that of a special-statute joint-stock company – its shares are traded on the stock exchange. However, its organisation, supervision and shareholder rights are governed by a special act, the National Bank Act.
Aside from being banker to the Confederation, the SNB is also the banks’ bank, i.e. its business is focused on banks in Switzerland and other financial market participants. It doesn’t offer banking services to private or retail clients.
The SNB’s supreme management and executive body is the Governing Board, comprising the Chairman, Vice Chairman and Member. The Governing Board alone is responsible for monetary policy.
The SNB’s supervisory body is the Bank Council. It monitors and controls the SNB’s business conduct and lays down the fundamental elements of its organisation. It approves the budget and the level of provisions for currency reserves, handles oversight of risk management activities and the investment process, and is responsible for deciding on the design of banknotes. However, the Bank Council differs from a conventional corporate board of directors in a number of ways. It has no say in the SNB’s monetary policy, which is solely the responsibility of the Governing Board. In addition, the SNB’s executive management, the Enlarged Governing Board, is appointed not by the Bank Council, but by the Federal Council – although the Bank Council proposes candidates for election.
The General Meeting of Shareholders takes place every April in Berne. On this occasion, the Governing Board and the Bank Council meet with shareholders and business representatives. The meeting is chaired by the President of the Bank Council.
While the majority of SNB shares are held by the cantons and cantonal banks, private individuals and companies can also own shares. However, given the special nature of the SNB’s mandate, shareholder rights are limited: voting rights of private shareholders are restricted to 100 shares, regardless of the number of shares held, and dividends may not exceed CHF 15 per share. Furthermore, the SNB’s business report and annual financial statements must be approved by the Federal Council, before being submitted to the General Meeting of Shareholders. Despite all these restrictions, the institution’s shareholders are an important symbol of how the SNB is anchored in the nation, and of its independence.
As stipulated in the Constitution, in reaching its monetary policy decisions, the SNB must always place the interests of the country as a whole first. The SNB is not allowed to seek or accept instruction from any quarter – be it state, business, political parties or the media. Monetary policy decisions are taken solely by the Governing Board.
Why is independence so important? In hard times, a central bank that is independent is better placed to take unpopular decisions – decisions that may hurt in the immediate aftermath, but that are ultimately beneficial to the economy in the medium or long term. This independence ensures that the central bank has a much greater chance of maintaining price stability and fostering a healthy economy. Indeed, most countries acknowledge that only an independent central bank can fulfil its mandate effectively.
This is not to say that the SNB can do as it pleases. First, its independence only extends to the fulfilment of its public mandate. Second, an accountability report detailing how the SNB has carried out its duties must regularly be presented to parliament and the public. The SNB also regularly meets with the Federal Council to discuss topical economic developments.
Since its foundation more than 100 years ago, the SNB has maintained head offices both in Berne, the capital, and in Zurich, the country’s financial hub. It is divided into three departments. Department I is responsible for preparing the material required for the monetary policy decisions. Department II is in charge of issuing banknotes and ensuring the stability of the financial system. And Department III implements SNB monetary policy in the financial markets. Departments I and III are primarily in Zurich, and Department II is mainly in Berne. The Governing Board is responsible for the SNB’s management. Each of its three members – and their deputies – heads one of the three departments.
In order to foster an ongoing exchange of information with businesses and the public, aside from its head offices in Berne and Zurich, the SNB maintains representative offices in Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Lucerne, Lugano and St Gallen. Each of these eight regions is attended to by its own delegate, who keeps a finger on the economic pulse by regularly carrying out surveys with the companies falling within their remit. The delegates also act as ambassadors to the SNB, by disseminating information in their regions on its monetary policy.
In 2013, the SNB opened a branch office in Singapore – the first time that the institution had established a presence abroad. The Singapore office employs less than ten staff. The step was taken mainly to improve management of its investments in the currencies of the Far East. This move also makes it possible for the SNB to monitor the foreign exchange market round the clock.
Most of the roughly 900 staff are employed at the Zurich and Berne offices, with about 650 at the former and over 200 at the latter, and the remainder distributed across the representative offices and the branch office in Singapore. While there is no typical SNB education, staff expertise lies mainly in the fields of economics, banking, finance, IT and logistics. However, staff also hail from any number of other professional backgrounds – and together comprise a highly diverse mix.
The SNB’s banknote-issuing privilege means that it can never become insolvent. As the creator of legal tender, it is, as it were, the source of money, and thus will always have the resources to meet its debts in Swiss francs. Furthermore, over time the banknote-issuing privilege yields profit. However, the SNB’s mandate is not to generate profits, but to maintain price stability. To ensure that it can fulfil this mandate in the long term, it continually strives to bolster its capital base. To this end, a portion of the SNB’s profits are always allocated to the provisions for currency reserves – as stipulated by the National Bank Act.