Polish leaders seek relief for those with Swiss franc loans

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish authorities unveiled proposals Wednesday aimed at helping more than 500,000 Poles with Swiss franc loans, the payments of which are spiking after a surge in the franc.

However, Economy Minister Janusz Piechocinski said Poland would not follow Hungary in making banks convert Swiss franc mortgages to the local currency at below the current market rate.

Instead, he said Poland will urge banks to let borrowers convert their loans into zlotys using the exchange rate of the day and with no commission. The Economy Ministry also suggests that banks allow a three-year suspension on loan repayments in case the franc appreciates further.

Economist Adam Antoniak with Bank Pekao SA said those proposals would likely make little impact: delaying repayment would only add to the total cost of the loan, and would not be possible for those with loans maturing when borrowers are to hit retirement. He added that few people would choose to lock in their loans now when the exchange rate is so unattractive.

The ministry also wants banks to take into account Switzerland's negative interest rates when calculating the monthly payments, something that could partly mitigate the higher costs.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles took out such loans, mainly home mortgages, in the boom years of the 2000s, lured by low Swiss interest rates.

After the financial crisis hit in 2008, the franc rose in value, causing a spike in the monthly payments, which are made in zlotys. Borrowers were dealt a new blow when the Swiss National Bank ditched its increasingly expensive policy of limiting the rise of its currency on Jan. 15, a shock decision that caused the franc to surge.

Some experts say the government should not help the borrowers, arguing they willingly opted for risky loans.

The counterargument is that not helping them brings "systemic risks," including foreclosures and an increase in the foreign liabilities of banks, Antoniak said.

"The main issue is that we have an election year, so I think the government will try to show it wants to mitigate the problem for borrowers. We are talking about potentially half a million voters," Antoniak said.

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