Diamonds Are Not Forever

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”
― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The recent move by De Beers to manufacture and sell lab grown diamonds has sparked some debate about the future of the diamond industry and the investment case for Anglo American. Anglo American own 85% of De Beers and diamonds contribute around 25% of the company’s revenue. For years, De Beers dismissed lab grown diamonds as not “real”. Just two years ago they were trying to sell a $60,000 infrared detector to jewelers as even experts could not differentiate between natural and lab grown diamonds. The efficacy of this equipment is questionable and the most common advice online is to insist on a certificate of authenticity.  In 2015 Simon Lawson, head of Technologies U.K. at De Beers said “De Beers’ focus is on natural diamonds, We would not do anything that would cannibalize that industry.”

That strategy failed as the share of lab diamonds grew and began to leak into the global supply chain undetected. With the launch of Lightbox, De Beers’s strategy is to manufacture and sell lab diamonds themselves, at a price 90% below natural diamonds. This severely undercuts their competitors who in recent years have been selling lab diamonds at around 30% below natural diamonds. Biz news describe De Beers as having dropped an “Atom Bomb” on the lab grown diamond industry.

This aggressive move is a risky attempt to fully segment the market into “natural” and “lab” diamonds. It is loudly proclaiming to the world that natural diamonds are ten times as valuable as lab diamonds (according to De Beers that is).

This aggressive strategy will severely hurt other lab grown diamond manufacturers who until now were making good margins selling lab diamonds at a 30% discount to natural diamonds. The question is whether it this “cannibalization” strategy will end up killing De Beers in the process. The problem that De Beers faces is that lab diamonds and “natural” diamonds are essentially the same thing. Lab diamonds have the same chemical composition, crystal structure, optical and physical properties of diamonds found in nature.
Throughout history, alchemists attempted to turn lead into gold in search of riches. It never worked. The recent progress in technology has achieved alchemy for diamonds.

 

A little bit of history

Diamonds have been valued by humans for thousands of years for their beauty and scarcity, but the discovery of massive diamond deposits in South Africa put all that at risk.

“Until the late nineteenth century, diamonds were found only in a few riverbeds in India and in the jungles of Brazil, and the entire world production of gem diamonds amounted to a few pounds a year. In 1870, however, huge diamond mines were discovered near the Orange River, in South Africa, where diamonds were soon being scooped out by the ton. Suddenly, the market was deluged with diamonds. The British financiers who had organized the South African mines quickly realized that their investment was endangered; diamonds had little intrinsic value—and their price depended almost entirely on their scarcity. The financiers feared that when new mines were developed in South Africa, diamonds would become at best only semiprecious gems.”

In 1938 Harry Oppenheimer enlisted New York–based ad agency N.W. Ayer to help increase the demand and perceived value of diamonds. In one of the greatest feats in marketing history, they took a small but growing tradition of giving diamond engagement rings and made it a standard social requirement. Between 1939 and 1979, De Beers’ wholesale diamond sales in the United States increased from $23 million to $2.1 billion. It is now $43bn in the USA and $82bn worldwide. They created the story of diamonds as being scarce and valuable and successfully planted it into the human narrative. They maintained the perception of value through extensive marketing and the ability to tightly control the supply chain, which ensured scarcity (or at least the perception of it).

A new strategy

 
De Beers is now attempting to pull off another great marketing feat by entering the lab grown diamonds, but trying to differentiate them as being different and “not as valuable” as natural diamonds.  Given that the diamonds are identical and very difficult (some say impossible) to tell apart, it is not clear to me why the value should be any different. The lab diamond industry has also made a very strong case that the supply chain for natural diamonds facilitates large scale human suffering (blood diamonds).

 

Status Symbols Will Endure and Evolve

 
Humans have an evolutionary need to display success and status, a purpose which diamonds have served for a number of years. But the choice of display has changed over time. At points in human history, copper, silk and even pineapples were scare status symbols. Humans are competitive social creatures so the jewellery industry will endure, but the significance of diamonds will slowly diminish. While people might be able to boast about having natural diamonds for now, if no one can tell the type of diamond, the social benefit of a natural diamonds will surely lessen over time.

 

An Audacious Strategy

Its quite audacious to attempt to differentiate identical products. Will De Beers be able to pull of this marketing feat and maintain the value of natural diamonds? I am very sceptical. After spending years denigrating lab diamonds, they were forced to enter this market themselves as lab diamonds have continued to take market share. They have massively undercut competitors, who will now be forced to match its pricing.

Commodities which are easy to produce, can’t possibly maintain value, regardless of what story you tell. Diamond prices have fallen since 2012 in line with gold as the fear of inflation has eroded. Going forward I believe that diamond prices will fall faster as the market is flooded and the belief in the higher value of natural diamonds is worn down.

diamond and gold

 

A good test of whether or not you share my view is whether you find this article compelling, or utter nonsense.

 

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South Africa’s Renewable Energy Misadventure

It is a truth universally acknowledged that South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (REIPPPP) was a great success.

The renewable industry has done one the most phenomenal public relations jobs I have ever seen. The frequency and quantity of articles promoting renewable energy and proclaiming the success of the REIPPP programme have been astounding. Their job was made easier due to the disintegration of Eskom. The PR machine kicked into high gear last year when Eskom declined to sign REIPPP contracts associated with the fourth round of the programme. The reason for the delay was due to a combination of maladministration and Eskom’s dire financial position. The contracts were eventually signed in April 2018 by Energy Minister Jeff Radebe. He left it to NERSA and Eskom to work out the cost implications.

Yesterday, Radebe released the draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) and the allocation to renewable energy sources continues to increase. I believe that the REIPPP programme will go down in history as one of the great financial swindles perpetrated on a developing country. Renewable energy and financial firms have made billions of Rands, leaving SA’s treasury covering guarantees of R200bn and South African consumers with higher electricity price increases. We have not been the only ones who have been fleeced as renewable energy has seen $800bn in subsidies globally over the last decade with very poor results.
The narrative backed by the media and (aided by amazing PR firms) is that renewable energy is a complete and proven technology whose cost is now below that of nuclear and fossil fuels. The truth is very different:

 
Renewables are more expensive

 
One of the main reasons people dont realise how expensive renewables are is that it’s not easy to measure the difference in value between intermittent and dispatachable (on demand) energy. So while renewable costs have fallen below coal/nuclear in theory, the reality is that they make electricity a lot more expensive. Electricity when you DONT need it is worth a fraction of electricity that is needed when you do. Rob Jeffrey attempts to show how you need to incorporate the capital cost and load factor to get a true cost of renewable electricity, which is much higher than the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LOCE) that is touted in support of renewables. Throughout the world, “low cost” renewables have only managed to drive up the cost of electricity

 
Renewable energy is an incomplete and imperfect technology

Intermittent renewable energy without proper storage is an incomplete technology; solar power without the high capacity and cost-effective battery technology is NOT a viable source of mainstream power.

 

A Solar future has been promised to us for years, but has never been delivered:
When I was young the highlight of a visit to my grandparents was the access to my grandfather’s library of “Popular Science” magazines. It was exciting to read about how we would drive, fly and live in the future. That was around 30 years ago and unfortunately the way we drive and fly has remained pretty much unchanged. There was always great excitement around the potential for solar energy to power our homes, cars and even planes. None of that is even close to fruition four decades later even as the technology has supposedly progressed substantially. Solar power companies around the world have struggled to reach commercial viability even with great incentives and subsidies, and when those subsidies are removed they tend to go bankrupt very quickly (Solyndra, SunEdison, Solarcity). The truth is that predicting how technology will evolve is very difficult. However, there are plenty of people incentivised to make those predictions and lobby accordingly. The following are popular science covers from the 70’s and 80’s:

While solar panels have improved, the fantastic predictions on our energy future have not come to fruition. The media has little understanding of how technology evolves.

Today there is a widespread belief that renewables are the future of energy generation, even though though they cannot deliver the type of power necessary for an industrialized economy. The technology necessary to advance renewables for mainstream purposes is years, if not decades away. As a poor country, South Africa does not have the resources to contribute to this project of unknown cost and horizon. Countries like Germany have aggressively pursued renewables, and pushed up their electricity prices to among the highest in the world. Germany can make that choice as they are one of the richest countries in the world. South Africa should not.

I am not “anti” renewable energy. There is no reason not to want clean power. I just believe that South Africa should wait until the technologies are perfected before considering implementation. Judging by how poor the predictions of technology have been, we do not even know whether the current renewable strategies (solar/wind) will be the ones that prevail. Given that solar has been a failure for the last 30-40 years, it would not be my bet for a primary energy source. My understanding of the science is limited, but my intuitive belief is that nuclear or “clean” fossil fuels are more likely to be the dominant power technology in the future. Meanwhile, there exist massive vested interests who aim to capture the explicit and implicit subsidies that renewable energy generation business provides. This means that we will continue to be subjected to a barrage of misleading science and economic opinions and predictions. Given that we don’t know which technology will prevail, and how long it will take for the next generation of power technology to be perfected, poor countries like SA should not be risking scarce resources by betting on an uncertain outcome.

On the positive side, we know that South Africa specializes in economic plans that never get implemented; the latest IRP will likely be one of them. It is a consolation that no further renewable projects will be signed for the next four years, by which time it will be more apparent that REIPPP was a disaster.

 

 

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The “Scourge” of Low Inflation

According to the world’s major central banks, low inflation is the main problem facing developed economies. Inflation is a measure of the increase in the cost of living, so the problem as defined by Central Banks is that the cost of living is not rising quickly enough.

A recent economic paper by the San Francisco Fed analysed which sectors are to “blame” for low inflation. It concludes that lower healthcare inflation is primary contributor. For most people this would be described as an unalloyed good. The article’s focus is on the drag to inflation from lower healthcare inflation, and how this makes it more difficult of the FED to reach its 2% inflation target.

I can’t help but feel that something has gone terribly wrong in the world of finance and economics for us to have ended up at this point.

The reason for the Central Bank viewpoint is that developed economies have high debt levels and need inflation to reduce the “real” value of debt. The current policy may be justified in the interest of economic stability. The problem is that the cure (low interest rates) just leads to debt levels rising even further.

There is no easy fix for the current predicament. However, economic policy makers have consistently favoured wall street over main street and the current obsession with higher inflation is a continuation of this pattern. We need to get to the point where policy makers are actively looking to reduce the cost of living in order to raise living standards. The world of finance should be a secondary consideration.

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A R3500 Can of Worms

We seem to be inextricably moving towards the implementation of a national minimum wage in South Africa. While this discussion has been going on in the background for some time, it gained momentum this year as it was lumped into the broader issue of “labour reform”. It is clear that some sort of labour reform is necessary to deal with SA’s high level of income inequality and its position as a world leader in unemployment. However, minimum wage legislation will prove to be another economic headwind for the country and a gift to populist parties like the EFF.

“Labour reform” has been highlighted by S&P as a key factor in determining whether it is appropriate to downgrade SA to sub investment grade. Everyone honed on to the issue of a “secret strike ballot” as a way to reduce strike activity. A “secret strike ballot” means that the majority of union members have to vote in favour of a strike for it to proceed. This seems like an obvious requirement but it is contentious.

The secret strike ballot has been under negotiation for a number of years but has failed to progress as unions have been opposed to its introduction. With SA trying to avert a ratings downgrade the secret strike ballot was portrayed as the key labour reform which was going to improve industrial relations and reduce the number of days lost to strikes. This was going to be presented to the rating agencies as a sign that structural reforms are progressing. However, it was impossible to get the unions on board and it appears that the minimum wage issue was fast tracked as a form of quid pro quo. I believe that this will prove to be a very bad trade off.
The importance of a strike ballot in SA has been overstated as it will not solve the problem of illegal strikes, violence and intimidation. The minimum wage on the other hand will have a profound effect on the country. The task team for a minimum wage today put forward a proposal of R3500 per month. There is much research and debate on the effect of a minimum wage on unemployment, but anyone who is familiar with economic analysis and forecasts will know that one should place very little emphasis on results. Around half the SA population earn below the proposed minimum wage. This mean means that the effect on wages and employment will be dramatic once fully implemented.

sa-median-income

As the minimum wage issue has come to the forefront in recent months the discussion has centred on the correct level and the economic impact. My concern is the much greater impact on politics and society. South Africa’s circumstances are somewhat unique given its history. We have amongst the highest levels of income inequality in the world and it is delineated by race. We have seen this discontent be expressed in increasingly militant ways by the EFF, AMCU and more recently the “Fees Must Fall” movement. The EFF have already rejected the amount of R3500 as too low and have called for a minimum of R4500.

average-income-by-race

Once the national minimum wage framework is in place, it will be easy for the EFF to base their election campaigning on the promise to increase it. The minimum wage number that they propose will be a powerful emotional anchor. Everyone earning below that level will see the EFF as fighting for them, while the ruling ANC will be perceived to be content with widespread poverty.
Regardless of what level the minimum wage is set at to begin with, I think it will turn out to be an economic and political calamity. In economic terms, the unequal structure of our society will result in consistent upward pressure on the minimum wage regardless of the economic impact. In political terms the EFF will initially be the main beneficiary of this framework as they use the initial R3500 as tool to attack the ANC. In the long run we will see populist parties attempt to trump both the ANC and EFF with even higher demands.

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The Economic Explanation for Trump’s Nomination Win

Much to the consternation of my friends and family, i have been a Trump “supporter” since August last year. Not so much a supporter as someone who was willing to defend his policies and often his behaviour. I defended his behaviour due to my intense dislike for career politicians. I defended his policies as I believed that globalisation has had a significant impact on the makeup of the United States economy and that Trump’s signature policies had the potential to gain support from those negatively impacted. Those who have been surprised by the rise of Trump, which is almost everyone in media and politics, have not been able to acknowledge the extent of and impact of the economic shifts which have taken place since the 1980’s.

Last August a GQ article by Drew Magary on a Trump rally in Oskaloosa Iowa highlighted to me the extent to which the resentment towards the current economic paradigm had grown . It showed how Trump was taking advantage of real economic concerns. Oskaloosa is a place i have never heard of but is emblematic of huge swathes of America that has been left behind economically and where the people are angry. Magary observes that “pretty much everyone at the Trump picnic believed that America sucks.” This level of disaffection is hardly surprising given the extent of the economic shifts since the 1980’s. Well-being is a relative concept and the economic policies of the recent decades has seen the middle class stagnate and income inequality skyrocket.

Around the same time as the GQ article, Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) began to blog about Donald Trump, predicting that he would win the general election. This was a point when no one was taking Trump seriously. It was a time when Ben Carson was “leading” in the polls. So while most of the media were taking a crazy person like Ben Carson seriously and writing off Trump as entertainment, Adams began chronicling the method to his apparent madness. Adams is trained hypnotist and was able to understand the levels at which Trump’s skills of persuasion were operating. Adams describes Trump as the “best persuader he has ever seen” and has been showing the world that Trump has the potential to win the election.

The Impact of Globalisation

In the U.S. there have been winners and losers of the move towards global free trade and the U.S. policy of uncontrolled inward immigration of low skilled workers. The mainstream economic view has been that immigration and free trade are an unalloyed good. Trade and immigration have helped grow total size of the U.S. economy, but the distribution of those gains has been highly inequitable. The US economy has grown 300% in the last 25 years while median household income is virtually unchanged. Corporate profits as a share of the economy have moved up to record highs while the share to salaries and wages has been moving lower. I believe that trade and immigration have been the driver of rising income inequality within the U.S. and the stagnation of the middle class.Household Income Growth

 
On Trade

Over the last 15 years the United States’ manufacturing base has been decimated as China have become the world’s factory. The number of US manufacturing jobs decreased by almost 6 million in the 2000’s. Manufacturing has historically been a large source of working class jobs so the impact of having a third of those jobs disappear should not be understated. The professional classes work higher up the value chain so they have retained jobs while benefiting from ever cheaper TV’s, clothes and phones. Unlike Donald Trump, I don’t believe that America has been a net loser from trade as U.S. companies profited from their access to global markets. Apple pays $200 to Chinese manufacturers to make the iPhone 6 and then sells it for $650+ all over the world. Where the U.S. has a competitive advantage they have benefited from an increase in exports. China has a competitive advantage in the cost of labour, so it is only natural that labour intensive areas of the economy like manufacturing would shift there. The segments of society which lost jobs to China are worse off. No discussion Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage could convince them otherwise.

US Manu Employ

On Immigration

The working classes have been exposed to intense competition from unskilled immigration, which has driven down the cost of their labour. The professional class has been shielded as their jobs are more difficult to outsource and they are protected due to US visa policies for skilled labour. There are 85,000 H-1B visas per annum for skilled workers and they sell out in less than a week. Skilled labour is tightly controlled while unskilled labour can just walk across the border and get a low paying job. Driving down the cost of low skilled labour benefits the professional class as they get cheaper nannies, gardeners and fast food. The professional class views immigration as a cultural issue but for the middle to lower classes it is very much economic. I doubt the professional classes would retain their “enlightened” approach to immigration if Indian/Chinese lawyers, engineers and accountants had arrived in the same quantity as Mexican labourers.

 

The Hypocrisy of the Elites 

I don’t actually “support” Trump. Having seen footage of his rallies i doubt whether someone like me would be able to get out of one of them unscathed. My defence of Trump has not been due him or even his policies. I am actually in favour of globalisation given its positive impact on overall global prosperity and developing countries, even if the transition to open economies has been poorly managed and the gains have not been shared. My defence of Trump is due to the hypocrisy of the political and economic elites. They have implemented trade and immigration policies which protect them from competition while exposing the working classes to the full forces of globalisation. Drew Magary and Scott Adams helped me see how Trump could take advantage of this hypocrisy to win the Republican nomination and maybe even the upcoming general election.

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Negative Interest Rates (or getting paid to borrow money)

Rashaad CNBC 22 feb 2016Asking a fixed income manager about negative interest rates is like getting a taxi driver’s opinion on self-driving cars. You know that they are going to tell you that it’s a bad idea. But with over $5 Trillion worth of bonds having negative yields they are now a firmly established reality. Japan recently joined the negative interest rate club alongside Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and the 19 countries that fall under the European Central Bank. These are a few thoughts on how we got to the scarcely believable point where 30% of the Global Bond Index now effectively entails the bond investor PAYING interest.

Negative interest rates are relatively new development

Positive interest rates have been around for a very long time. The Code Of Hammurabi (2130-2088 BC) capped interest rates at 33%. More than 4000 years later in 2009 Sweden cut its interest rate to -0,25%. There used to be a belief that monetary policy was limited by a “zero lower bound“, the view that interest rates could not go below zero as it was easy to escape negative interest rates by moving money out of the bank and into cash. The zero lower bound also reflected the view that it was inconceivable that a lender could be the one paying interest on a loan.

There is a new (lower) lower bound

While we have broken through the zero lower bound, as long as cash exists there will be some lower bound. This will be determined by the not insignificant cost of moving and storing physical cash. JP Morgan recently estimated that rates could go down to -1,5% in the USA and potentially -4,5% in Europe without a massive flight to cash. Any attempt to move rates even further negative would need to be combined with moves to make cash even more expensive to hold or even an outright ban. Attempts along these lines have already begun as the European Central Bank (ECB) is considering scrapping the 500 Euro note. In the United States, former US Treasury secretary Laurence Summers has been talking about scrapping 100 USD note, which accounts for almost 80% of the value of currency in circulation. The nature of politics in the USA makes me believe that a move to negative rates in the USA will be far more difficult than what we have seen in Europe and Japan.

Central Banks are figuring it out as they go along

When the ECB cut rates to -0.1% in June 2014, Mario Draghi announced that they were at lower bound for all “practical purposes”. In September 2014 the ECB cut to -0,2% and Draghi then said it was a technical adjustment and “now we are at the lower bound, where technical adjustments are not going to be possible any longer.” Then in December 2015 the ECB cut again to -0,3% and this time Draghi refused to say whether he believed they were now at the lower bound. The consensus is that they will cut further in 2016. The moves by the ECB shows how Central Banks are still figuring out the effects of negative rates and the extent to which they can cut.

Even as negative rates become commonplace, I don’t think that they are good policy tool for three primary reasons: 

Reason 1: Negative rates are new and powerful weapon in the currency wars 

Central Banks are resorting to negative rates in order to devalue their currencies. Countries like Switzerland and Denmark experienced large capital inflows while being pegged to the Euro and negative rates were an attempt to stem these flows. More recent attempts to move to negative rates by Japan, Sweden and the ECB strike me as competitive devaluations, which are an attempt to devalue a currency in order to make a country more competitive in global trade. Any attempt to maintain the currency at artificially weak levels is obstructive as I believe that free floating currencies are one of the best stabilizers in the financial system. They rebalance trade and capital flows by causing the currencies of relatively strong economies to appreciate, and weak economies to depreciate. Losing this automatic stabilizer leads to imbalances in the global economy and a build up of risks in the financial system.

Reason 2: Negative rates encourage greater leverage

Negative rates are an extension of the ultra easy monetary policy environment that has been in place since 2008. Monetary policy was used to save the banking system during the financial crisis, but is now seems to be the primary tool for driving economic growth. Monetary policy has substituted for fiscal policy or any form of structural reform. The problem with low (negative) interest rates, as the primary tool for growth is that, by design, it encourages an increase in borrowing. I believe that demand is weak because of excessive leverage, and any approach that increases leverage further is unlikely to solve the problem but just create greater financial risks. Structural reforms or some form of explicit wealth transfer (helicopter money) is more direct way of dealing with weak demand and the poor growth outlook.

Reason 3: We have reached a limit where there is little benefit to even lower rates

Japan’s recent attempts at monetary easing failed miserably and highlighted the limits to further monetary easing. The Bank of Japan cut to negative interest rates at the end of January in order to ease monetary policy and stimulate the economy. Subsequently, the currency appreciated 8% and the stock market fell 12%. That is exactly the OPPOSITE effect of what they had intended. Since 2009, Central banks have engaged in unprecedented monetary stimulus across the developed world. The example of Japan shows that we reaching a limit to how much monetary policy can do.

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