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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Difference in wealth and money

Krugman raises an interesting question in his blog titled What is money? I believe this is a very crucial question we need to ask to understand the context of the current financial crisis. I have dealt with this question in detail in my book "Subverting Capitalism and Democracy".

There is a difference between wealth and our bank balance. Wealth is our ability to purchase future convenience (in terms of products and services). But there is no way to understand wealth in isolation, just as there is no way to understand temperature in isolation. To measure wealth we need a metric - money provides us with this metric. 

Metrics, like those for length, time, temperature etc, are very specific and scientifically determined. For example, the length of 1 meter was previously defined as the distance between two marks on the specific rod, placed in International bureau of weights and measures in Paris, made of platinum and iridium alloy measured at 0 degree Celcius. Later, a more specific measure was developed defining 1 meter as distance travelled by light in specified time in vacuum. 

However, metric for wealth, i.e. Money, is not specific and absolute. Money itself changes value all the time. Money itself is a commodity created to measure other commodities against it. But since it is a human creation, there is no supply constraint other than what we have self-imposed. Thus, money obeys all the laws of supply and demand like other commodities. It also means that money appreciates or depreciates depending on demand supply changes in other commodities.

The value of money refers to its ability to purchase goods and services. Therefore, wealth refers to value of money at specific time as the value of money changes with information on demand and supply. Thus if you are on an island where news reaches once a month then most likely the value of money will change monthly. This is one reason why fund managers want to know information earlier than others.

Let us say the monthly information comes through that instead of usual 100 apples (the only item that can be purchased on the island), this time 1000 apples were produced. Now the purchasing power of your money has gone up 10 times simply because there are more goods than money. On the flip side we can argue that prices have fallen because of bumper harvest. In either case the value of money, or your wealth, has changed.

Similarly, if suddenly the supply of money changes drastically we will have to work out the new price levels. Say if money supply increased by factor of 10, but supply of apples was same, then prices should increase by ten-fold and to retain your wealth you must have 10 times as much money as you had before increase in money supply. The same process is immensely complicated in a multi-product complex economy. Thus an individual may have no clue how her wealth may have changed during the process.

Today, economies are creating and pumping money in large quantities. Naturally, currencies are facing uncertain environment. The purchasing power of ALL the currencies is in flux. To protect our wealth, we need to step back a little understand how the currencies stack up then, once the volatility subsides, return into a currency denominated wealth. This is why people prefer to hide or park in a commodity that has very limited supply, like Gold or rare metals.