DeBeers Cartel Deathwatch: Russia Set To Flood Diamond Market With Firesale Of 167,500 Carats

Thanksgiving Day in 2014 will remain in the history books for one key event: that is the day when OPEC effective collapsed, after Saudi Arabia refused to comply with demands by other OPEC members to cut oil production, unleashing the biggest ever drop in the price of oil, ultimately surpassing even that seen after the great financial crisis in duration and severity.

Now, another historic cartel may be on its last legs: the DeBeers diamond cartel, because according to Russian daily Izvestia, as part of Russia plan to combat its creeping budget deficit, Russia’s state minerals depository, known as Gokhran, will conduct two auctions on February 29 and March 10, in which it plans to sell as much as 167,500 carats of diamonds. By comparison, Russia sold only only 8,800 carats in all of 2015, generating proceeds of $3.6 million.

This is a surprising development, because while many had expected Russia to potentially sell some of its extensive gold reserves as the Kremlin battles with low oil prices, few had anticipated that Russia would flood the diamond market. Furthermore, the proceeds from the auctions are de minimis: the budget proceeds will hardly exceed $ 15 million (1.2 billion rubles) from the diamond sales according to Izvestia.

That, however, will not stop Russia. Initially, only medium-sized stones - those weighing up to 10.8 carats - will be sold. Citing experts, Izvetsia notes that such diamonds are found in abundance on the market, and do not represents a special interest for buyers, but the Russian media adds that the oversupply may adversely affect the market as a result of the sudden surge in supply. 

According to the expert from the analytical industry agency Rough and Polished Sergey Goryainov, there is little grounds to expect a successful auction. He said that the Russian Ministry of Finance can only sell diamonds on the domestic market, and in Russia demand for diamonds in now at a very low level. The recent record ruble devaluation is partially to blame for the lack of diamond demand.

Goryanov adds that "the diamonds that will be sold are currently overly abundant in the market. Starting prices will be low as one can't expect much excitement in the auction."

While the Ministry of Finance is only expected to sell medium-sized diamonds, on previous occasions it marketed larger stones, heavier than 10.8 carats. It may have no choice but to resort to more of the same if there is no demand for the initial offered lots.

The Russian Gokhran finds itself in possession of an substantial amount of small and medium-sized diamonds. The reason is the large-scale buying diamonds by the Russian government from the state company Alrosa in the 2008-2009 period. "Alrosa" has a monopoly on diamond mining in Russia (98% of production), and its largest owners are the Federal Property Management Agency - 43.9%, and the government of Yakutia  at 25% of the stock.

Until 2008, Alrosa had no experience selling diamonds - Russian precious stones were marketed in the global market by the South African company De Beers. However, in 2007 a European Court decided that such cooperation harms competition on the world diamond market. One year later the global financial crisis broke out and demand for diamonds had fallen sharply, and as a result of this double whammy the government had to bail out Alrosa and in the period January to July 2008, when the Russian Gokhran bought diamonds worth $ 1 billion. Then in 2009 Russian purchased another $872 million worth of diamonds from Alrosa, leading to the huge diamond pile currently held by Gokhran, including diamond special sized as well as medium-sized rocks; a pile which is about to be auctioned off.

Rough diamonds from the Nyurbinskaya open-pit mine. Photo property of ALROSA.

It is unclear who the Russian dumping of diamonds on the local market will impact global prices, however it is likely that a substantial arbitrage will emerge, especially if clearing prices for Russian diamonds comes at a significant discount to global, cartel-controlled fixes.

Worse, this comes as a time when the biggest marginal buyer of diamonds in both the wholesale and retail market, the wealthy Chinese investor and speculator, has been forced off the stage. Which likely means that with diamond prices trending lower ever since peaking in mid-2011 at nearly double their post-Lehman lows, prices are about to slide to new cycle lows...

... and just as the collapse of the oil cartel has led to major shakeups in the crude market, we eagerly await to see what skeletons emerge from the closet of one of the world's most infamous and notorious cartels in history, that of the world's diamond producers who until now had maintained a firm grasp on total supply; a grasp which is about to be shaken as a result of Russia's desperate measure to balance its budget at any cost.