Where Did All the Money Go?

We have been hearing lately that trillions of dollars of American wealth have vanished over the last few weeks as the stock markets have plummeted. Perhaps you were wondering where that money went. A good article from the Associated Press explains what happened:

If you’re looking to track down your missing money — figure out who has it now, maybe ask to have it back — you might be disappointed to learn that is was never really money in the first place.

Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale, puts it bluntly: The notion that you lose a pile of money whenever the stock market tanks is a “fallacy.” He says the price of a stock has never been the same thing as money — it’s simply the “best guess” of what the stock is worth.

“It’s in people’s minds,” Shiller explains. “We’re just recording a measure of what people think the stock market is worth. What the people who are willing to trade today — who are very, very few people — are actually trading at. So we’re just extrapolating that and thinking, well, maybe that’s what everyone thinks it’s worth.”

Shiller uses the example of an appraiser who values a house at $350,000, a week after saying it was worth $400,000.

“In a sense, $50,000 just disappeared when he said that,” he said. “But it’s all in the mind.”

Though something, of course, is disappearing as markets and real estate values tumble. Even if a share of stock you own isn’t a wad of bills in your wallet, even if the value of your home isn’t something you can redeem at will, surely you can lose potential money — that is, the money that would be yours to spend if you sold your house or emptied out your mutual funds right now.

And if you’re a few months away from retirement, or hoping to sell your house and buy a smaller one to help pay for your kid’s college tuition, this “potential money” is something you’re counting on to get by. For people who need cash and need it now, this is as real as money gets, whether or not it meets the technical definition of the word.

Still, you run into trouble when you think of that potential money as being the same thing as the cash in your purse or your checking account…

There was a time when nobody had to wonder what happened to the money they used to have. Until paper money was developed in China around the ninth century, money was something solid that had actual value — like a gold coin that was worth whatever that amount of gold was worth, according to Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Denver.

Back then, if the money you once had was suddenly gone, there was a simple reason — you spent it, someone stole it, you dropped it in a field somewhere, or maybe a tornado or some other disaster struck wherever you last put it down.

But these days, a lot of things that have monetary value can’t be held in your hand…

So basically, your stock market portfolio, 401k, or whatever you invest in, is not really money, but potential money based on an assumed value of ownership in a company. However, when you invested in it, you put in your “real” money, so I can understand why folks treat stock values are real money. I haven’t bothered to check my mutual funds recently. If I recall, I started investing back in 2003, so I may still have a few gains left; who knows. Nonetheless, if the bottom to this thing is near, stocks are pretty cheap, so now may be the time to get in. Until then, I have some of my money at Dollar Savings Direct, which is offering a 4.0% APY right now.