What is the Crisis About? Fictitious Capital or the Destruction of Wealth?

This short essay briefly describes the financial side of my interpretation that the crash reflected a disconnect between the underlying investment in the economy and its financial representation — what Marx called fictitious capital. The stock market people call this realignment, “destruction of wealth,” even though what is destroyed is the illusion of wealth. The illusion may have been capable of purchasing valuable things so long as other people accept that illusion.

Long ago people accepted the illusion as an illusion and went on with their business. Here is what a former governor of Illinois wrote:

Ford, Thomas. 1854. History of Illinois (Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Co.).

227: “Our Whig friends contended that the continual and violent opposition of the democrats to the banks destroyed confidence; which, by-the-bye, could only exist when the bulk of the people were under a delusion. According to their views, if the banks owed five times as much as they were able to pay and yet if the whole people could be persuaded to believe this incredible falsehood that all were able to pay, this was ‘confidence’.”

Ordinary people understood what was happening. Here is an incident from Chicago about the same time:

Peyton, John L. 1869. Over the Alleghenies; extracted in Warren S. Tryon, ed. A Mirror for Americans, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952): III, pp. 589-607.

605: Visiting Chicago in 1848, Peyton objects to taking wildcat notes from an obscure Atlanta bank [meaning that the unregulated bank probably had little or nothing backing up its money]. The hotelkeeper responds, is discussing notes:

“Why, sir, … this hotel was built with that kind of stuff …. I will take “wild cats” for your bill, my butcher takes them of me, and the farmer from him, and so we go, making it pleasant all around. I only take care … to invest what I may have at the end of a given time in corner lots …. On this kind of worthless currency, based on Mr. Smith’s [the issuer’s] supposed wealth and our wants, we are creating a great city, building up all kind of industrial establishments, and covering the lake with vessels — so that suffer who may when the inevitable hour of reckoning arrives, the country will be the gainer, Jack Rossiter [the speaker] will try, when this day of reckoning comes, to have “clean hands” and a fair record …. A man who meddles, my dear sir, with wild-cat banks is on a slippery spot, and that spot the edge of a precipice.”

A few years earlier, a Philadelphia banker wrote about this arrangement to the famous economist, David Ricardo:

Raguet, Condy. 1821. “Letter to David Ricardo, 19 April.” In David Ricardo. Minor Papers on the Currency Question, 1809-1823, Jacob Harry Hollander, ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1932): pp. 201-3.

202: “The circulating medium is there [in interior of the country] principally depreciated and inconvertible paper, and so far is the delusion still kept up, that in Kentucky and Tennessee new banks without a specie capital or [any] obligation to pay their notes and gold or silver, have lately been established.”

202: “You state in your letter that you find it difficult to comprehend why persons who have a right to demand coin from the Banks in payment of their notes, so long forbore to exercise it. This no doubt appears paradoxical to one who resides in the country were an act of Parliament was necessary to protect a bank, but the difficulty is easily solved. The whole of our populations are either stockholders of banks, or in debt to them. It was not in the interest of the first to press the banks and the rest were afraid. This is the whole secret. Any independent man who is neither a stockholder nor a debtor, who would have ventured to compel the banks to justice, would have been persecuted as an enemy of society, and during the whole period of suspension of specie payments, not an instance occurred in this City of a suit being brought before a court of Justice. A friend of mine in New York was however bold enough to attempt it toward the close of the scene … The Banks became alarmed, and began to call in their loans — the local currency of New York became 5 percent better than it was — millions of dollars worth of goods ordered from Europe were countermanded.”

Here is the way a modern capitalist sees the same situation. Steve Palmer posted this on Lou Proyect’s Marxism list:

Davies, Megan and Walden Siew. 2009. “45 Percent of World’s Wealth Destroyed: Blackstone CEO.” Reuters (10 March).

Private equity company Blackstone Group LP (BX.N) CEO Stephen Schwarzman said on Tuesday that up to 45 percent of the world’s wealth has been destroyed by the global credit crisis. “Between 40 and 45 percent of the world’s wealth has been destroyed in little less than a year and a half,” Schwarzman told an audience at the Japan Society. “This is absolutely unprecedented in our lifetime”.”

7 comments so far

  1. Charles on

    Might we term this Utopian Capitalism ? No doubt they consider them dreams rather than illusions.

    What’s the qualitative difference between this and what
    Madoff did ?

  2. Da' Buffalo Amongst Wolvesd on

    I gotta hand it to these guys for their bald-faced arrogance:

    “Private equity company Blackstone Group LP (BX.N) CEO Stephen Schwarzman said on Tuesday that up to 45 percent of the worlds wealth has been destroyed by the global credit crisis. Between 40 and 45 percent of the worlds wealth has been destroyed in little less than a year and a half, Schwarzman told an audience at the Japan Society. This is absolutely unprecedented in our lifetime.

    …as if NO ONE THERE KNEW that it was a house of cards built on sand, with no foundation and leased furniture.

    It it’s similar in arrogance to what someone who works (worked perhaps) at a smaller Wall Street company said after the Bear Stearns bust: “Some of THOSE GUYS OUT THERE(emphasis mine) are in trouble”, as if he, his investment firm, and his very way of life as a non-producer of anything tangible (unless one considers paper wealth ‘tangible'[I snicker loudly and guffaw), aren’t part of the ‘trouble’ OR more concisely, part of the problem.

  3. mperelman on

    Madoff knew what he was doing. Schwartzman did not.

  4. Erik on

    You would probably enjoy, if you have not already read it, Stephen Minh’s book, A nation of counterfeiters. He argues that the fictitious capital of the wildcat banks and counterfeiters was necessary in a society (the American west) where there was not enough money to circulate.

    • mperelman on

      Yes, a very strong recommendation for it:

      Mihm, Stephen. 2007. A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States (Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press).

  5. Charles on

    When we say not enough money to circulate, does that mean not enough gold ?

  6. […] of nothing, but the fact is, children don’t build cities, nations, and their infrastructure. This piece on econ professor Michael Perelman’s blog rounds up a few nice anecdotes from the 19th […]

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