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Sunday February 5th, 2023

Valentine’s Day brings sparkle to Belgian diamond hub

AFP – Sparkling new diamond rings will grace many fingers around the world on Valentine’s Day — and most of those gems will have passed through a drab district in the Belgian port city of Antwerp.

A diamond hub for nearly 600 years, Antwerp is holding its own as the global trade capital for the precious stones despite new rivals in the Middle East and Asia, traders there say.

Not that it looks anything special. This district near the main railway station is the dingy opposite of the ostentatious stones it produces for one good reason — security.

"It’s a mini Fort Knox," Indian-born trader Shashin Choksi says after sending off a shipment of $300,000 of polished diamonds to Hong Kong.

Huge riches lie in safes and vaults behind weather-worn facades on the three main streets that make up the Diamantkwartier, or Diamond Quarter, in the city in the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium.

Around 2,000 security cameras watch people, cars and armoured trucks pass through, while drivers wave passes at electronic gates to reach trading, grading and other offices.

Thieves stole an estimated $100 million in diamonds and other jewellery from the district’s safes in 2003. A poster plastered inside diamond district buildings says police "are watching over you".

– ‘Almost every diamond’ –

Choksi’s shipment is among hundreds containing gems worth $220 million that pass each day through the one-square-mile district to and from all points on the globe.

"If you are buying a diamond or considering buying a diamond for Valentine’s Day, the chances are high that the diamonds you are looking at once travelled through Antwerp," industry spokeswoman Margaux Donckier said.

"If not all, almost every diamond travelled through Antwerp," added Donckier, who represents the Antwerp World Diamond Centre syndicate.

Antwerp accounts for 84 percent of trade in the world’s rough diamond production and 50 percent in polished diamonds, usually the biggest and most costly, the syndicate says.

The 1,700 diamond trading firms in Antwerp imported or exported $48 billion worth of diamonds in 2016, the last year for which figures are available, says the AWDC.

Choksi loves Antwerp’s cosmopolitan mix that includes traders from his native India but also those from Israel, Lebanon, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.

The Christmas sales period is the most important for his firm, Choksi said, while other traders do well around Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, the Indian wedding season and the Hindu festival Diwali.

It was European trade with India that got Antwerp started in diamonds around 570 years ago as the Flemish port, along with fellow Dutch-speaking Bruges, Ghent and Amsterdam, became emporia for rising global trade.

Dating from antiquity, diamond mines in India produce little today compared to those in Russia, Africa, Australia and Canada, but Mumbai is a fast-growing trade hub and Surat is a major centre for cutting and polishing.

Antwerp also faces growing rivals in the United Arab Emirates port of Dubai, Israel’s Ramat Gan and China’s Hong Kong and Shanghai.

– ‘Facing competition’ –

"We’re facing competition for at least ten years now, but we’re still the leading player in the world," Donckier said. "We’re not only holding on to the heritage, we’re also investing in the future to keep Antwerp as a world leader."

Antwerp remains the go-to place for global mining giants, including Russia’s Alrosa and South Africa’s De Beers, that put their raw gems up for bid there.

"I have on my table the whole world. Why would I go elsewhere?" Choksi said in his offices protected by numerous locks and decorated with family photos and an Indian tapestry.

Choksi, who works with his wife Vinita, does about $6.5 million a year in trade, a small fraction of the $800 million he said a big player might do.

Besides new rival hubs, the AWDC said business was also affected by synthetic gems and competition for people’s wallets from hi-tech gadgets and holidays.

The Leonardo DiCaprio film "Blood Diamond" — set in Sierra Leone about illegally mined gems sold to finance wars — had also made people think twice about buying diamonds.

"I think the image probably hurts somewhat, but I think not as much as it could have been," AWDC President Stephane Fischler told AFP.

A year after the Sierra Leone conflict ended in 2002, the Kimberley Process international certification scheme was created to keep conflict diamonds out of the market and lay down export conditions.

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Sri Lanka President’s address to the nation- Full text

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe in an address to the nation on the 75th independence day, calling for an end of divisive politics, minority discrimination and politics of deceit.

He promised maximum devolution within a unitary state.

After independence the country was divided on race, religion and region, he said.

“We were divided to a point of developing suspicion and animosity against each other,” he said.

“Various groups exploited this division to gain power and created further rifts among the people. Instead of rejecting such groups, we accorded power to these very same groups.”

“In politics, lies were spread instead of the truth. Politicians who spoke the truth were rejected by the people.

“Those who pointed out the real situation of the country and sought related remedies were hardly given a place. Yet, those who satisfied people with their lies gained greater acceptance.

The full statement is reproduced below:

Most Venerable Maha Sangha and the clergy, my fellow citizens, all Sri Lankans abroad, dear children,

Today, I will not be delivering a traditional Independence Day statement. I am not going to dwell on the freedom we gained. While honouring those who were dedicated and worked hard for the country’s freedom, including the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake, I will focus on regaining the freedom that we have lost today.
Around 75 years ago, the esteemed ‘London Times’ newspaper carried an editorial stating that “It is our desire to see Sri Lanka become a Switzerland in the East, very soon.”

They had not expressed a similar vision for any other country in the East.

However, what has happened to us today?

Today, we are facing an unprecedented economic crisis, hitherto never experienced.

Why have we to face such a situation? Who is responsible for such?

Let’s be truthful. All of us are more or less responsible for this situation. None of us can point fingers and blame each other.

We made mistakes from the beginning. Efforts were made to rectify those mistakes, though it was not possible to correct them completely.

The policy followed by the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake in securing the country’s freedom was to unite all Sri Lankans. He believed that everyone, be it Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher, should forge ahead as Sri Lankans.

However, after independence we divided in terms of race, religion and region. We were divided to a point of developing suspicion and animosity against each other. Various groups exploited this division to gain power and created further rifts among the people. Instead of rejecting such groups, we accorded power to these very same groups.

In politics, lies were spread instead of the truth. Politicians who spoke the truth were rejected by the people. Those who pointed out the real situation of the country and sought related remedies were hardly given a place. Yet, those who satisfied people with their lies gained greater acceptance.

We got trapped in a consensual political culture. Our characteristic was to be depended on borrowed resources and we borrowed even more.

We adopted the notion that, “The government is a spring of resources”. Many were of the view that the duty of the rulers was to distribute the various resources obtained from that spring, among the people. Accordingly, job opportunities were provided and various goods and equipment were also distributed. Cash was also made available.

In most instances, we did not vote on behalf of the country. Instead we voted for a candidate in order to receive a job, to gain admission to a school for our children and to have a tender passed etc. We worked for political candidates expecting personal favours in return.

Most of us contested not for the country, but for personal power, for greater perks and to earn a little more.

We were trapped in promises and endured slogans which finally resulted in the gradual collapse of the country’s economy. We borrowed increasingly to fulfil election pledges and proved the slogans shouted at the protests were correct.

We borrowed more for consumption rather than for investment. However, according to the Buddhist Philosophy one should take loans for investment purposes and not consumption. While we are talking of Buddhism, our action is not in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings.

Lee Kuan Yew, who visited Sri Lanka to study and formulate a strategy to rebuild Singapore, said after many years, that . “This situation has arisen in Sri Lanka due to unnecessarily prioritising politics. If Sri Lanka was followed as a role model, even Singapore by today would have perished.

In fact, we have reached the point of destruction. There are those who want to keep perpetuating this wound forever, though I don’t wish. Let’s seek to heal this wound though it’s difficult and painful. If we endure the suffering and pain for a short period of time, we can get the wound healed completely.

We have no way out of this crisis with short cuts as that some political parties are pointing out.

We have only one way to get rid of this situation, if we want to overcome this crisis and achieve real economic and social freedom. Remember, if we miss this path due to misplaced political agendas, we would neither have a future nor a country.

On several occasions, I pointed out the seriousness and danger of the looming economic crisis we are facing today. I have already said that the first six months of this year will be extremely difficult. We have to face this difficult situation in our stride, although unwillingly, for the sake of the country.

Although a large number of people in this country got out of poverty with the free education and expanded the middle class, today the country has turned into a land where it is impossible to fulfil their aspirations. I see the youth who should be working hard in different fields in this country are creating long queues to obtain passports. We need to change this situation too.

To achieve this end we should modernize the economy and open it to the world. The corrupt political factionalism that deceives the people making them dependants and poor for ever should also be changed. This is the “system change” that the youth of this country have been demanding for over a long period of time.

My government therefore has embarked on new path of reform to fulfil the needs of the youth. Even though those decisions that have to be taken for it are painful, it has to be done in order to overcome.

We have to move away from narrow politics in order to be rid of this crisis situation. We must face this challenge together as children of one mother and make our fullest contribution to strengthen the path towards the successful development of this country. We must all move forward as Sri Lankan nationals leaving aside all differences.

Hence the basis and foundation for a strong new economy has already been formulated. We are successfully completing the difficult stage required to get support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). We expect to get their consent without delay.

We cannot be satisfied just by strengthening the economy. The entire system needs to be changed. All areas of this political system, the legislature, parliament, Executive, state machinery, etc. should be modified to suit the modern era. The nation, and we should benefit from this change. More space should be created in the new system, for representation and opinions of young people and women in particular.
For this system modification, we are proposing a number of orders to the Parliament.

Additionally, immediate action needs to be taken in relation to the unique issues that the people in the North and East face. A cabinet subcommittee for this purpose has already been established.

All political parties are informed of its decisions and their implementation dates. Thereby those tasks are carried forward. We have given priority to activities such as release of land and prisoners.

Furthermore, measures are being taken for the maximum division of power in a unitary state. However, we’ll never consent to the division of this nation.

I’m not attempting to treat the superficial condition with painkillers. But to treat the root cause of the malaise. It is challenging and difficult, but it’s our only option.

I know that many of the decisions I have been compelled to take since assuming the presidency have been unpopular.

However, because of those decisions, today no citizen of this country will die of dehydration in oil queues. You won’t starve without gas. Not curse without fertilizer.

Therefore, regardless of the obstacles the anarchist political forces seek to create, I will continue this new reform program with the majority of people who love this country.

We can become a developed country by 2048 if we work and move forward in a united and planned manner envisioning peace and reconciliation. There is the potential to become a developed country which is not begging from any other nation in the world. True freedom can be achieved and it is possible.

It is our collective responsibility to build a new country in which our children can compete with the rest of the world. Therefore, I urge all parties to come together to overcome this difficult period.
Let’s unite! Let’s join hands!

With joined hands let’s embark on a united journey over the next 25 years, as we have planned. Let’s further nurture those plans in accordance with the views of all parties. Let’s get stronger. Let’s make them more systematic and streamlined.

Not only should all of us who live in Sri Lanka join this effort. But the Sri Lankans living in the different countries around the world should also shoulder this journey. Everyone should be united. Everyone should contribute to the achievement of these goals as much as possible.

Let us devote ourselves, unite as children of one mother. Let us make our country one of the most developed in the world by 2048, when we will celebrate 100 years of independence.
Thank you all.

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Sri Lanka critical on independence day, opportunity to rectify our errors: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka going though a critical time as the 75th anniversary of independence from British rule is being marked on February 04, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said.

“Our 75th Anniversary of Independence from colonial rule is being observed during an extremely critical and challenging time in the  country,” he said in an independence day message.

“It is, indeed, a decisive moment. However it presents an opportunity for us not only to review our strengths and gains as a  nation but also to rectify our errors and failures.”

Sri Lanka is now in the grip of the worst currency crisis in the history of its intermediate regime, central bank with the rupee falling from 182 to 360 to the US dollar in the current credit cycle.

President Wickremesinghe, is taking unpopular political decisions to stablize the country under a program with the International Monetary Fund, as his predecessors had done before him.

Sri Lanka got independence from the British on February 04, 1948.

At the time economic bureaucrats did not have the power to depreciated the currency by printing money to manipulate interest rates down, but were strictly rule bound and no IMF programs were necessary.

In August 28, 1950, a group of economic bureaucrats were given ‘monetary policy independence’ to print money undermining a peg with gold (1.99 grains of gold) and the US dollar – which was also on a gold standard at 22 units an ounce.

At the time the rupee was only 4.76 to the US dollar.

Sri Lanka joined the IMF the next day, on August 29. Economic bureucrats who mis-targeted rates have since take the country to the IMF 16 times.

As money was printed and forex shortages emerged the population rapidly lost their economic freedoms. First first exchange controls, then trade controls were brought to enable the central bank to continue printing money for extended periods, and avoid prudent monetary policy.

In 2005 Sri Lanka got market access. In 2022 the country defaulted as other market access countries with monetary instability had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Market access countries in the 1980s and 1990s were mainly in the Latin America.

“There is a new economic and social reform agenda before the country  with the objectives focusing first on recovery and then on renewed  development,” President Wickremesinghe said.

“It is imperative for us to unite in its implementation so  that we can emerge with a high level of economic prosperity.”

However there is no attempt to change the flexible inflation targeting under the IMF program, giving monetary policy independence to economic bureaucrats.

Highly discretionary flexible policies where money is printed to reach a 5 percent inflation target is to be legalized as part of the program, just as similar regime was set up in 1950 the day before IMF membership was obtained.

The full statement is reproduced below:

President’s Independence Day Message

Our 75th Anniversary of Independence from colonial rule is being observed during an extremely critical and challenging time in the  country.

It is, indeed, a decisive moment. However it presents an  opportunity for us not only to review our strengths and gains as a  nation but also to rectify our errors and failures.

Since 1948, we have, as a nation, undergone many tests and travails –  from riots, insurgencies and war to natural disasters.

These  experiences have left us with a sense of inculcated resilience that  has made us revive better when faced with adversity. Therefore, I am  confident that even at this juncture we will pool our energies as the  daughters and sons of one mother to rise up from the current economic  abyss and build back stronger.

There is a new economic and social reform agenda before the country  with the objectives focusing first on recovery and then on renewed  development. It is imperative for us to unite in its implementation so  that we can emerge with a high level of economic prosperity.

I pledge  today to make the extremely difficult though vital decisions to  achieve this goal with courage and determination. I anticipate the confidence and support of you, the people of our country, in this  endeavour.

I also take the opportunity to thank you, the Sri Lankan expatriate  community, for your contribution towards the development of our  motherland despite your distance. I would like to invite you to join  us in securing a bright future for the younger generation of Sri  Lankans who are at the vanguard of economic and social development. 

Your faith and investment in the unique and creative ideas of our talented youth who lack capital could give considerable hope and be of  immense benefit to our country in this crisis.

On this historic anniversary, let us all resolve to meet the  challenges of this year with further patience and fortitude.

I extend warm felicitations to you, Sri Lankans, here and aboard.

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Sri Lanka welcomes sovereign bondholders’ letter to IMF

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s State Finance Minister welcomed the letter sent by the island nation’s sovereign bond holders to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over their willingness to engage in debt restructuring talks.

“The Sri Lankan government welcomes the letter sent by bondholders to the IMF,” Minister Shehan Semasimghe said in his twitter platform.

“We continue to engage in good faith dialogue with our private creditors to find a solution that will help us achieve debt sustainability and will enable Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.”

Sri Lanka’s bondholders on Friday wrote to the IMF and expressed their willingness to engage in debt re-structuring talks but also raising matters related to the domestic debt re-structuring and economic assumptions and forecasts.

More on bondholder views here: Sri Lanka sovereign bond holders not looking for domestic hair-cut

Named themselves as ‘The Ad Hoc Group of Sri Lanka Bondholders’, the group noted that the finalization of an agreement will be subject to the satisfaction of the certain conditions including the central government’s domestic debt – defined as debt governed by local law – is reorganized in a manner that both ensures debt sustainability and safeguards financial stability.

It also asked the gross domestoc fiinancing to be limited to 8.5 percent of the GDP while keeping the  annual gross financing needs not exceeding 13 percent of GDP in the each year between 2027 and 2032 and allowing for central government annual foreign currency debt service to reach 4.5 percent. (Colombo/Feb04/2023)

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