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Have We Really Lost Wealth?

Melting Ice Cube With the stock market down some 40% last year, many people are asking, "Where did the money go?" Sure there are some stock market losers. But remember the winners, those who sold their stocks in October 2007? They got their money. Remember also that for every share of stock sold, there was a share of that stock bought. But Fannie Mae used to trade for $80 a share and is now just pennies a share. Is the money just totally gone? Where did that market capitalization go? Furthermore, we need to push deeper, past the issues of money and valuations and ask, "Have we really lost wealth?" The answer may surprise. We will get to that last question in a moment. But first, let’s follow the money.

Where did the money go?

The USA Today ran a story that read, "$2 trillion wiped out of retirement funds " so far in 2008. Really? Two trillion dollars is wiped out? Lost? This is a fascinating notion. You wake up one day and wealth is suddenly gone. Vanished. Like some ice cube that has melted on a hot street. Here one moment and gone the next. As we shall see, the ice cube metaphor may be even better than it first appears. Stocks have melted.

The NPR Planet Money podcast a few weeks ago sought to answer the question "What is money?" and recently asked "Where did the money go?" To help us visualize the "loss" of money, they acted out a little skit with three market participants. At the start of the skit it was noted that among them the sum total of money was $400. Russ had $200, Alex had $200, and Lois had a house. (It was a little green Monopoly game piece house.) Russ Roberts (of EconTalk fame) decided he wanted a house. So he offered Lois $200 for hers and she accepted. Russ has the house, Lois has $200. Some time passed and then Russ wanted to sell his house. Alex was the only one who made an offer and it was for $100. Russ took the offer but was obviously unhappy about "losing" $100. At the end of the skit, Alex owned the house and $100, Lois had $200, and Russ had $100. The sum total of money was $400. Therefore, the net amount of money remained unchanged although some of the market participants had varying emotions about their transactions.

Lois was happy to receive the $200 for her house because she said she had originally purchased the house for $100. But she said that she still had to live somewhere and would now have to go and buy another house. Russ was obviously unhappy because he has $100 less than when he started. And still no house. Alex was probably the happiest because he has a nice house and still has $100 of his original $200 remaining. But with the net amount of money remaining the same, they didn’t really ask the question, "Why did the house only get an offer of $100?"  Why not a $300 offer? Don’t house prices continuously rise and never fall?  It was a fun exercise to walk through, but it still left me unsatisfied. What’s behind the rise and fall of prices? Let’s try to figure that out. But instead of houses, let’s switch over and talk about gold for a moment.

Gold and the Market

Gold is different than houses. We can’t live in gold. Instead, gold is money. Ancient money. Gold would still be money today if the governments would stop prohibiting it from being money. Consider these characteristics of money: money must be marketable, easily transportable, relatively scarce, relatively imperishable, easy to store, easily divisible, and uniform in quality. Gold meets all of these characteristics and has been used as money by default through the ages. Ironically the dollar, the world’s reserve currency, doesn’t meet all of these characteristics. It misses the scarcity test.

So let’s trade two things: dollars and gold. It used to be that a dollar represented a fixed amount of gold, but today we can trade one for the other at different amounts. If you have dollars and I have a one ounce gold coin, you can make me an offer to trade some of your dollars for my coin. I can accept or refuse. If you offer me $200, I will refuse. If you offer me $2000 I will accept. Somewhere in between these two ranges we may reach an agreement (or we may not). The more people there are around to offer bids and ask for bids, the greater the chance that someone can reach an agreement on a fair trade. As an example, say your bid for my gold coin is $600 but Troy bids $800. You may consider increasing your bid to $850 in light of his bid. But before you do, Bill next to me accepts Troy’s $800 bid for his coin. You witness that and decide to limit your bid to me to $800 also. Why pay more, right? Or if you are really trying to game me, you may hold your bid at $600 thinking that no one else is around now that will bid something higher.

This is the workings of the market. Bidding and asking is how we reach agreed-upon prices. This is why stock prices are what they are: dynamic. It is a continuous mixture of people wanting to sell at the highest asking price and people wanting to buy at the lowest bid price. But they know they are competing with other sellers and buyers for those same shares.

Motivated Sellers

Competition is the heart of the market. It is the heart of the gold market and the heart of the real estate market and the heart of the stock market and even the heart of the currency market.

In the NPR skit, Alex was able to buy the house from Russ for only $100 because there were no other offers higher and Russ really wanted to sell. A motivated seller they say. Perhaps he needed to move because of a job relocation. There are motivated sellers in all markets just as there are motivated buyers. Are there more motivated sellers than motivated buyers? Prices will fall as bids dry up. Prices will fall as the number of offers rise and the amount asked for sinks. Are there more motivated buyers? Prices will rise as bidders compete. Prices will rise as owners hold tight.

Presently in our global stock markets our global real estate markets and our global commodity markets we have not just a boatload of motivated sellers but a whole fleet of cruise ships full of motivated sellers. We have banks, brokers, hedge funds rushing for the exits at the same time, needing to sell just to get the dollars to pay off debts and client redemptions. We even have investors motivated to sell simply because they see so many other motivated sellers selling.

As naturally happens when motivated sellers outnumber motivated buyers, prices drop. We might call this an asking war , the opposite of a bidding war. Sellers lowering their asking prices in the face of other low asking prices. Asking prices for stocks go lower. Asking prices for houses go lower. Asking prices for copper goes lower. But motivation in a particular market is only part of the story. We need to also consider motivation across markets. I may want to sell my house not because of physical reasons but because of economic reasons. Perhaps I want to trade house wealth for stock wealth. I may prefer at present to rent and hold 10,000 shares of an index fund rather than owning a house. I probably will not find the exact trade I’m looking for; that is, someone to offer to trade me their 10,000 shares for my house. Instead, I’ll have to trade through money. I sell the house for dollars and then sell the dollars for the index funds.

But the net amount of money in the system doesn’t change as a result of motivations. The buyer gets to keep the net amount that the seller loses out on. Alex has the $100 instead of Russ. When prices kept going up, did anyone ask, "Where did that money come from?" Not likely. We don’t care how we got it. Yet we darn sure want to know how we lost it. But both answers are the same. The net amount of money remains constant among the total pool of buyers and sellers.

[Note that I am for purposes of this discussion ignoring the effect of fractional reserve banking and the creation of money when lent and the destruction of money when a loan is paid back. This effect is indeed serious and makes an enormous impact to the economy as a whole.]

Lost Wealth?

Now we know where the money went. It is still there. Not a satisfying answer to owners of stock mutual funds in their 401K plans who say, "Oh great, more motivated sellers means any bids I seek for my shares will be lower if I were to try to sell today." Penny’s 401K plan may have a cost basis of $100,000. And last year when she checked the bids on her portfolio it may have fetched nearly $300,000. But based upon recent offers, it may only receive bids for $150,000. That seems like lost wealth to Penny. Is it?

It depends. It might not be lost wealth to Penny. We need to look at what Penny would have wished to trade her shares of stock for? A house? If so, Penny is in luck because houses she liked that used to fetch $300,000 bids are now asking only $150,000. So Penny’s 401K plan would buy the same amount of house even though its dollar value has fallen in half. Similarly, Penny may have wished to use her 401K to travel or to eat or to pay her gas bill. Dollar values for each of these things may have fallen, but their values may have stayed relatively close to the value of her stocks over that time.

We are living in a world where bids for practically every asset are lower in comparison to bids for dollars. Many motivated sellers of stuff, many motivated buyers of dollars.

So the problem is the thing we are using as money, which itself is becoming more "valuable." The banks, brokerages, and hedge funds that need to get dollars are not just motivated sellers of stocks and commodities, but they are also motivated buyers of dollars. There are lots of motivated dollar buyers. Prices of dollars rise. Everything else seems more expensive compared to dollars as a result.

But we the investing public with 401K plans are typically not motivated buyers of dollars. We are more typically motivated buyers of the things that dollars buy. Food, travel, cars, shelter, heat, etc. When we trade one of these for the other, we might expect roughly the same item-for-item transaction this year as we did last year. The thing in the middle is what has changed: the money. The demand for the dollar by banks, brokers, and hedge funds has skewed the monetary valuations of both the things that we need to sell and the things that we want to buy. But in the end, it might possibly be that our wealth remains somewhat unchanged just like the amount of money remains unchanged among buyers and sellers.

Which brings us back to the ice cube metaphor. With melting stock prices, melting real estate prices, and melting copper prices, just like a melting block of ice the water still exists — only in a different form. The wealth once stored in stocks is now stored in dollars. Ice melts to water. Stocks melt to dollars. There is one more thing. Something I really don’t want to think about in this analogy. What happens when the water evaporates?
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Sun, January 25 2009 » Analysis, Blog, Gold, Reviews, Uncategorized