A reader raised an interesting point, while he finds my articles to give “lucid” explanations of the current economic drama he believes that most readers do not understand financial markets. In looking at how to better explain the way the financial markets work I struck on an idea, why not use the market for diamonds as a way to describe the mechanism?

Diamonds are valued by the familiar “4 Cs” - carat, clarity, cut and color. Let us consider carat or weight and clarity to determine the “intrinsic” value of a diamond while we can consider cut and color to determine the “subjective” value of a diamond.

The carat or weight of a diamond can be accurately determined by a scale. Turning to a mortgage we can call its carat or weight to be its balance due, times its interest rate, times the period for repayment of the loan. This can be readily and accurately calculated.

The clarity of a diamond means how clear it is of imperfections or flaws which can be readily seen with a microscope. Such flaws and imperfections determine the potential for the stone to break and can be accurately measured. Turning to mortgages we can consider “clarity” to be determined by defaults and foreclosures which can also be accurately measured.

The color of a diamond can range from white to blue to lemon to “root beer.” The demand for certain colors changes over time and this the value goes up and down according to fashion. Likewise the cut of a diamond can be of several types with demand for a certain cut affecting the value. At present the most sought after cut is the “Leo” diamond (no, I had nothing to do with this, unfortunately). The point here is that cut and color constitute “subjective” valuation of a diamond that can change over a wide range.

Subjective valuation of mortgages has to do with perceptions of their reliability. Thus they are subject to variable measures, rather than constant measures. Last year sub prime mortgages were consider to be the weakest mortgages and their values were smartly reduced, no matter what the “intrinsic” value may have been. Now prime rate mortgages are causing concern and they are being devalued smartly.

Another subjective valuation stems from the fact that no one knows the full scope and scale of “securitized debt” built on mortgages. At first we panicked and cut valuations to the bone. However, as we get a better handle on this pile of “toxic assets” we are able to better value them.

I have argued since last summer to drop the “subjective” values derived from “mark-to-market” rules and value mortgages and mortgage based assets to their “intrinsic” value. This was done on April 2 of this year. This change will lead to banks increasing the values of their mortgages and mortgage based assets, thus allowing them to lend again.

P.S. More notes on diamonds:

1. Diamonds are found throughout the world, from the frozen wastes of Canada and Siberia to the steamy jungles of the Congo to the deserts of Namibia to the gentle hills of Arkansas.

2. The main suppliers of diamonds are South Africa and Botswana where they are mined and Namibia where they are culled from the desert sands.

3. For the last 100 years the supply and thus value of diamonds was controlled by the De Beers organization owned by the Oppenheimer family of South Africa. De Beers has now changed to a market strategy of being the “supplier of choice” in the wake of intense competition from Russia and Australia.

4. I once met the late, legendary patriarch of the Oppenheimer family, Harry Oppenheimer on a visit to Washington DC. I caught his attention when in response to his direct question I said I was negotiating the entry of the first American mining company into Mozambique, his back yard.

5. The diamond market rests squarely on its symbiotic relationship with love and marriage. If the demand by women for a diamond as the visible symbol of their marriage should change to some other stone, the market for diamonds would, get ready, drop like a rock.

Leo Cecchini
April 2009