How is wealth destroyed and where does wealth come from?

Where did the wealth destroyed on Stock Markets come from?

If 20 percent of the value of world stock markets can be wiped out in one week, as has just happened, then where does that wealth actually disappear to? Is it buried in a big hole somewhere, scuttled at sea or sent on a rocket into outer space? Apparently not, but if money can simply disappear from world markets how can we make any sense of the concept of value in finance. How is it measured and where did it come from in the first place?

Theories of value

In the first post of this series I asked “where does money come from” and gave a brief history of the origins of money in the form of precious metal coins used to facilitate the process of trade from simple barter to the exchange of goods of different values. Without exactly defining where money comes from I hinted at the idea that monetary value is realted to the total amount of work or labour which is tied up in bringing the goods to market. That’s a theory which is known as the labour theory of value and is not always widely accepted, probably due to association with a certain Karl Marx who took that theory, which was already known by cpaitalist economists, and developed it a bit further with his concept of “socially necessary labour time”.

Money grows on trees

People who don’t subscribe to the labour theory of value believe that money comes from being rewarded for taking risks, that value is determined entirely by the balance between supply and demand, and that substantial sums of money can somehow just “grow”. They say that money doesn’t grow on trees, but that’s not too dissimilar to the idea that interest just accumulates on investments because money begets more money. In reality, investments such as stocks and bank deposits typically pass through a number of hands but end up being used to buy goods not for consumption but for increased or more efficient production. Investment of capital buys machine tools, land, property and other wherewithal to employing labour in order to create goods or services for the market which can be sold at a profit. The important point here is that the capital doesn’t generate a single penny of orginal value until the employment of labour has happened. To be profitable, the output from this process of applying labour to previously accumulated capital must be of actual use to a buying market, and must be produced with a total number of labour hours which is competitive with alternative setups, such as differently tooled machine shops employing labour under different terms and conditions. That’s pretty much all that’s meant by the “socially necessary labour time” formulation really, to counter the idea that simply getting enough people to work hard for the the most minimal wages will necessarily creaste wealth.

Wealth Ceated by Labour

All wealth is created in the first place by labour, and that is the real answer to the question answer “where does money come from”. It comes from work that has been done by somebody, that has been abstracted and turned into a type of commodity itself, which can then change hands and accumulate, which can be exchanged for special kinds of products, Which can then be deployed in the employment of further labour. Capital is an accumulation of the results of previous rounds of expended labour, or “dead labour” as is sometimes expressed. The capital exchanged on world money markets then represents a further abstraction as speculators buy and sell options to receive the fruits of other people’s labour in the future, that hasn’t even been expended yet, and place bets on the likelihood of prices rising and falling.

Destruction of Wealth in a Slump

In a serious recession, when stock markets crash, and seemingly abstract wealth is destroyed, this is not just a accountancy game played out with pieces of paper or rather electronic transfers. It does actually play out into the very real destruction of productive capacity as enterprises go under or cut back and the very concrete machinery, buildings, expertise and systems are abandoned due to lack of a buying market that can afford their products at a profitable price. All of that overcapicity which has been built up out of the relentless requirement to reinvest and expand will be scrapped, levelled, and laid waste at the greatest of human cost until enough real capital has been wiped out for the accumulation cycle to begin all over again. In the current circumstances the effects are particularly catastrophic because the downturn had been temporarily postponed for a couple of decades or so through the use of massively expanded credit, which could distort the outward shape of the cycle for a short while, but never the underlying forces at work in any free market system based on the private ownership of capital.

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