Early signs hint at diamond recovery; meanwhile Canada plans additional supply
by Greg Klein
Coming from the company that commissioned the slogan “a diamond is forever,” Philippe Mellier’s remark sounded ironic. “It’s often been said that a week is a long time in politics,” the De Beers chief executive told customers in Botswana last month. “Well if that’s the case, then I think a year must represent an eternity in the diamond industry.” To be sure, 2015 must have been an eternity he’d like to forget, marking as it did the year demand went south, taking with it the accuracy of some previously bullish near-term forecasts. And now De Beers faces challenges from competitors as it tries to right the wrongs it’s been accused of.
Critics like industry player and commentator Martin Rapaport said De Beers put too much rough on the market last year and priced it too high, creating a surplus that manufacturers couldn’t afford. The company responded by cutting production and lowering rough prices by an estimated 7% to 10%. Mellier says that’s stabilized polished prices and in some cases improved them.
Having previously called for Mellier’s resignation, Rapaport now credits him with “moving forward in the right direction.” But Rapaport accused the company of “messing up the supply side with unsustainable manipulations of the price and quantity of rough diamonds sold.”
Once a one-company cartel, De Beers used to manipulate the market any way it pleased. Although it’s still formidable with over 30% of the industry, any efforts to limit global supply would face challenges by other producers. Those are among the conclusions drawn by analyst Paul Zimnisky in a report released February 1.
After De Beers’ late 2015 production cuts, its output dropped 7% to 29 million carats for the year, Zimnisky stated. This year’s target comes to 26 million to 28 million carats. But ALROSA, with a similar market share, boosted 2015 production by 6% to 38 million carats. The company stockpiled about 22% of that total. ALROSA sees its production averaging about 40 million carats a year for the next decade.
Obviously the company expects buyers. As Chris Berry has noted, ALROSA foresees demand reaching a 5% cumulative annual growth rate up to 2024 while supply lags behind with a 1% CAGR.
Other challenges to De Beers would include Canada’s Dominion Diamond TSX:DDC. Its share in two Northwest Territories mines makes Dominion the world’s third-largest rough producer by value.
Last year Diavik, a 40/60 joint venture with Rio Tinto NYE:RIO, turned out 6.4 million carats, down 11.5% from 2014 due to processing plant pauses and the absence of stockpiled ore, Zimnisky reported. But the 10-million-carat A21, the mine’s fourth pipe, has production scheduled for late 2018.
Dominion also holds 88.9% of Ekati, which produced an estimated three million carats last year, a 6.3% decrease from 2014, Zimnisky added. The Misery Main pipe, with a reserve of 14 million carats, has production expected in H1 and would produce about four million carats this year. That would raise Ekati’s production by 70% to about 5.1 million carats in 2016.
The company also holds a 65.3% stake in the adjacent Buffer zone, which includes the Jay pipe with its 84.6-million-carat reserve. On February 1 Dominion announced the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board recommended the NWT approve Jay, which the company says could potentially extend Ekati’s lifespan at least 10 years beyond 2020.
Although De Beers shut down the NWT’s technically challenging Snap Lake mine last December, construction has reached 85% completion at Gahcho Kué, also in the NWT’s Lac de Gras region. A 51%/49% De Beers/Mountain Province Diamonds TSX:MPV JV that’s slated for H2 production, “the world’s largest and richest new diamond mine” would average about 4.5 million carats annually for an initial 12 years.
In Ontario, De Beers’ Victor mine has about five years left of its 12-year life. But Tango, a proposed extension now undergoing environmental review, could provide another seven years of operation. Production could potentially begin in 2018, the company says. Zimnisky reported 550,000 carats estimated for Victor this year.
Now five months ahead of schedule and $35.6 million under budget, Stornoway Diamond TSX:SWY expects its Renard project in Quebec to begin ore delivery by the end of September and commercial production by year-end. Output had previously been estimated at 1.6 million carats annually for 11 years. But revised guidance, mine life, reserves and other data should be released in Q2, the company announced on February 3.
If 2015 seemed tough to De Beers’ Mellier, his company showed signs of bouncing back this year. January rough sales surprised analysts by hitting about $540 million, Bloomberg reported February 2. As for De Beers’ Russian rival, “ALROSA extended its January diamond offering and is set to sell about double the amount originally planned,” the news agency stated, citing unconfirmed sources. They told Bloomberg ALROSA’s first sale of the year will likely bring in $450 million to $500 million without lowering prices as De Beers did.
RoughPrices.com credits De Beers, ALROSA, Rio and Dominion with well over 75% of world rough supply. “Polished, in contrast, is an extremely fragmented market.”