Business

How the soaring Swiss franc impoverished homeowners in Central Europe

Homeowners in Romania, Croatia and Poland saw their mortgage payments soar when Switzerland unpegged the franc, sending it soaring.

Mortgages backed by francs became so expensive, people can barely afford them

Dorota Smetek, 30, stands in the kitchen of her small one-bedroom apartment in Poznan, Poland. Smetek and hundreds of thousands of other people across central Europe regret the day they took out mortgages in Swiss francs. (Pawel Jaskolka/Associated Press)

Elvis Constantin Cluci and his wife had planned a second child, their dreams set on a little brother for their 2 1/2 year-old daughter. But due to a surge in the Swiss franc that caused the Romanian couple's mortgage payments to rise, not only is another child out of the question but they have had to send their daughter to live with grandparents 100 kilometres away.

Now they see her only once or twice a month. They simply cannot afford both day care and their mortgage on a small studio apartment in Bucharest. They can barely even scrape together the gas money to drive to see her.

"I can hardly smile anymore," said Cluci, 37. "My wife is completely destroyed. As the man I have to be strong and bear it."

On Jan. 15, the Swiss national bank ended a policy meant to limit the franc's value against the euro — causing the franc to surge. That move by one of Europe's richest countries is adding to the financial despair of hundreds of thousands of people across some of the poorest regions of the continent due to mortgages taken out years ago in Swiss francs.

Mortgages in Swiss francs

Many of the borrowers were in their 20s and 30s who took out loans in the boom years before the crisis of 2008. They were supposed to be the first generation to benefit fully from the economic promise that came with the fall of communism and the entry into the European Union. Mortgages in foreign currencies were particularly popular because they came with lower interest rates.
A woman in Bucharest, Romania, holds a banner displaying a play on words that translates to "I am in deep debt" during a protest outside the parliament building. (Vadim Ghirda/ Associated Press)

Instead, these borrowers now find themselves stuck in a new kind of servitude, their fates tied to the ups and downs of a currency that many have never held in their hands.

The pain of the borrowers is turning into a key political issue in many countries, primarily Poland and Croatia, where elections are on the horizon. Many of the borrowers feel they were tricked by the banks into financial products that are now called "toxic" — and have been banned in many countries. They want governments to push banks to give them some relief.

It's a tricky position for leaders: do you force banks to take a financial hit to help people who willingly entered into risky contracts?

Government action

The Hungarian government forced banks in November to convert Swiss franc loans to the local currency at the exchange rate of the time. In hindsight, the timing prevented financial disaster for many Hungarian borrowers come January.

The government of Croatia, where there are 60,000 such loans, froze the franc-kuna exchange rate at pre-Jan. 15 levels for one year to help borrowers.

Other countries, like Poland and Romania, are still debating what to do, but have ruled out a Hungarian-style solution. Polish authorities are urging banks to take voluntary steps to help borrowers.

Wiktor Nozycki, a 31-year-old Pole who has a mortgage on an apartment in Poznan, says what the Polish authorities have proposed primarily benefits the banks and that he considers the government and bankers to be acting like gangsters.

"No one warned the consumers about any risks," he said. "Banks here are above the law."

The anger is huge in Poland, where there are more than 550,000 outstanding loans, and class-action lawsuits against banks are in the works. In Slovenia an association of affected citizens is also threatening to sue the banks.

Blaming the 'tricky' banks

Many borrowers now owe more on their homes than they are worth and cannot sell without incurring significant loss, also because property prices have fallen since the boom years. The media have reported cases of people so desperate they have sought treatment in psychiatric hospitals. In Romania, the suicide of a borrower prompted a consumer protection agency to investigate whether the loans were fairly handled.

Dorota Smetek, a 30-year-old assistant professor of linguistics in Poznan, feels she was tricked by her bank and is considering joining one of the lawsuits.

In 2008, at 24, she took an 11-year mortgage to buy a small one-bedroom apartment for 250,000 zlotys ($68,500). The bank had predicted her instalments would be around 2,500 zlotys ($685), but right after she signed the deal the financial crisis hit, and she immediately found herself paying 3,000 ($825) per month. Her most recent installment was 3,500 zlotys ($960), something she can't pay without her parents' help.

"There wasn't a single instalment that was what the bank said it would be," she said. "I am starting to think someone is taking me for a fool. I feel I was cheated."

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