What Is Fixed Capital?

Fixed capital includes the assets and capital investments, such as property, plant, and equipment (PP&E), that are needed to start up and conduct business, even at a minimal stage. These assets are considered fixed in that they are not consumed or destroyed during the actual production of a good or service but have a reusable value. Fixed-capital investments are typically depreciated on the company's accounting statements over a long period of time—up to 20 years or more.

Key Takeaways

  • Fixed capital consists of assets that are not consumed or destroyed in the production of a good or service and can be used multiple times.
  • Property, plant, and equipment are standard fixed capital items.
  • Fixed capital assets are usually illiquid items and are depreciated over time.
  • The opposite of fixed capital is variable capital.

Understanding Fixed Capital

The concept of fixed capital was first introduced in the 18th century by the political economist David Ricardo. For Ricardo, fixed capital referred to any kind of physical asset that is not used up in the production of a product. This was opposed to Ricardo's idea of circulating capital, such as raw materials, operating expenses, and labor. In Marxian economics, fixed capital is closely related to the concept of constant capital.

Fixed capital is the portion of total capital outlay of a business invested in physical assets such as factories, vehicles, and machinery that stay in the business almost permanently, or, more technically, for more than one accounting period. Fixed assets can be purchased and owned by a business, or they can be structured as a long-term lease.

On the other side of the capital equation is that which circulates, or which is consumed by a company in the process of production. This includes raw materials, labor, operating expenses, and more. Marx emphasized that the distinction between fixed and circulating capital is relative since it refers to the comparative turnover times of various types of physical capital assets.

Fixed capital also "circulates," except that the turnover time is far longer because a fixed asset may be held for several years or decades before it has yielded its value and is discarded for its salvage value. A fixed asset may be resold and reused at any time before its useful life is over, which often happens with vehicles and airplanes.

Fixed capital can be contrasted with variable capital, the cost and level of which change over time, and with the scale of a company's output. For instance, machinery used in production would be considered fixed capital, as it would remain with a company regardless of current output levels. Raw materials on the other hand would fluctuate depending on output levels.

Fixed Capital Requirements

The amount of fixed capital needed to set up a business is quite particular to each situation, especially from industry to industry. Some lines of business require a large number of fixed-capital assets. Common examples include industrial manufacturers, telecommunications providers, and oil exploration firms. Service-based industries, such as accounting firms, have more limited fixed capital needs. This can include office buildings, computers, networking devices, and other standard office equipment.

While production businesses often have easier access to the inventory necessary to create the goods being produced, the procurement of fixed capital can be lengthy. It may take a business a significant amount of time to generate the funds necessary for larger purchases, such as new production facilities. If a company uses financing, that may take time as well to obtain proper loans. This can increase the risk of financial losses associated with low production if a company experiences an equipment failure and does not have redundancy built in.

Depreciation of Fixed Capital

Fixed capital investments typically don't depreciate in the even way that is shown on income statements. Some devalue quite quickly, while others have nearly infinite usable lives. For example, a new vehicle loses significant value when it is officially transferred from the dealership to the new owner. In contrast, company-owned buildings may depreciate at a much lower rate. The depreciation method allows investors to see a rough estimate of how much value fixed-capital investments are contributing to the current performance of the company.

Liquidity of Fixed Capital

While fixed capital often maintains a level of value, these assets are not considered very liquid in nature. This is due to the limited market for certain items, such as manufacturing equipment, or the high price involved, and the time it takes to sell a fixed asset, which is usually lengthy.