Have you ever wondered what happened to your socks when you put them into the dryer and then never saw them again? It's an unexplained mystery that may never have an answer. Many people feel the same way when they suddenly find that their brokerage account balance has taken a nosedive. So, where did that money go? Fortunately, money that is gained or lost on a stock doesn't just disappear. Read to find out what happens to it and what causes it.
Before we get to how money disappears, it is important to understand that regardless of whether the market is in bull (appreciating) or bear (depreciating) mode, supply and demand drive the price of stocks, and fluctuations in stock prices determine whether you make money or lose it. (For background reading on this concept, see Economics Basics: Demand and Supply.)
So, if you purchase a stock for $10 and then sell it for only $5, you will (obviously) lose $5. It may feel like that money must go to someone else, but that isn't exactly true. It doesn't go to the person who buys the stock from you. The company that issued the stock doesn't get it either. The brokerage is also left empty-handed, as you only paid it to make the transaction on your behalf. So the question remains: where did the money go?
Implicit and Explicit Value
The most straightforward answer to this question is that it actually disappeared into thin air, along with the decrease in demand for the stock, or, more specifically, the decrease in investors' favorable perception of it. (For more on what drives stock price, see Stocks Basics)
But this capacity of money to dissolve into the unknown demonstrates the complex and somewhat contradictory nature of money. Yes, money is a teaser - at once intangible, flirting with our dreams and fantasies, and concrete, the thing with which we obtain our daily bread. More precisely, this duplicity of money represents the two parts that make up a stock's market value: the implicit and explicit value.
On the one hand, money can be created or dissolved with the change in a stock's implicit value, which is determined by the personal perceptions and research of investors and analysts. For example, a pharmaceutical company with the rights to the patent for the cure for cancer may have a much higher implicit value than that of a corner store.
Depending on investors' perceptions and expectations for the stock, implicit value is based on revenues and earnings forecasts. If the implicit value undergoes a change - which, really, is generated by abstract things like faith and emotion - the stock price follows. A decrease in implicit value, for instance, leaves the owners of the stock with a loss because their asset is now worth less than its original price. Again, no one else necessarily received the money; it has been lost to investors' perceptions.
Now that we've covered the somewhat "unreal" characteristic of money, we cannot ignore how money also represents explicit value, which is the concrete worth of a company. Referred to as the accounting value (or sometimes book value), the explicit value is calculated by adding up all assets and subtracting liabilities. So, this represents the amount of money that would be left over if a company were to sell all of its assets at fair market value and then pay off all of liabilities. (For more insight, read Digging Into Book Value and Value By The Book.)
But you see, without explicit value, implicit value would not exist: investors' interpretation of how well a company will make use of its explicit value is the force behind implicit value.
Disappearing Trick Revealed
For instance, in February 2009, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq:CSCO) had 5.81 billion shares outstanding, which means that if the value of the shares dropped by $1, it would be the equivalent to losing more than $5.81 billion in (implicit) value. Because CSCO has many billions of dollars in concrete assets, we know that the change occurs not in explicit value, so the idea of money disappearing into thin air ironically becomes much more tangible. In essence, what's happening is that investors, analysts and market professionals are declaring that their projections for the company have narrowed. Investors are therefore not willing to pay as much for the stock as they were before.
So, faith and expectations can translate into cold hard cash, but only because of something very real: the capacity of a company to create something, whether it is a product people can use or a service people need. The better a company is at creating something, the higher the company's earnings will be and the more faith investors will have in the company.
In a bull market, there is an overall positive perception of the market's ability to keep producing and creating. Because this perception would not exist were it not for some evidence that something is being or will be created, everyone in a bull market can be making money. Of course, the exact opposite can happen in a bear market. (To learn more, read Are we in a bull market or a bear market? and Where did the bull and bear market get their names?)
To sum it all up, you can think of the stock market as a huge vehicle for wealth creation and destruction.
No one really knows why socks go into the dryer and never come out, but next time you're wondering where that stock price came from or went to, at least you can chalk it up to market perception.