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Capital (economics)
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Capital (economics)

In economics, capital, capital goods, or real capital are those already-produced durable goods that are used in production of goods or services. The capital goods are not significantly consumed, though they may depreciate in the production process. Capital is distinct from land in that capital must itself be produced by human labor before it can be a factor of production. At any moment in time, total physical capital may be referred to as the capital stock (which is not to be confused with the capital stock of a business entity.) In a fundamental sense, capital consists of any produced thing that can enhance a person's power to perform economically useful work a stone or an arrow is capital for a caveman who can use it as a hunting instrument, and roads are capital for inhabitants of a city. Capital is an input in the production function. Homes and personal autos are not capital but are instead durable goods because they are not used in a production effort.

In Marxian economics, capital is used to buy something only in order to sell it again to realize a financial profit, and for Marx capital only exists within the process of economic exchange it is wealth that grows out of the process of circulation itself and forms the basis of the economic system of capitalism.[1]


  • In narrow and broad uses
  • Interpretations
  • See also
  • Further reading
  • References

In narrow and broad uses

In classical and neoclassical economics, capital is one of the factors of production. The others are land, labour and, according to some proponents, organization, entrepreneurship, or management. Goods with the following features are capital:

  • It can be used in the production of other goods (this is what makes it a factor of production).
  • It was produced, in contrast to "land", which refers to naturally occurring resources such as geographical locations and minerals.
  • It is not used up immediately in the process of production unlike raw materials or intermediate goods. (The significant exception to this is depreciation allowance, which like intermediate goods, is treated as a business expense.)

These distinctions of convenience have carried over to contemporary economic theory.[2][3] There was the further clarification that capital is a stock. As such, its value can be estimated at a point in time. By contrast, investment, as production to be added to the capital stock, is described as taking place over time ("per year"), thus a flow.

Earlier illustrations often described capital as physical items, such as tools, buildings, and vehicles that are used in the production process. Since at least the 1960s economists have increasingly focused on broader forms of capital. For example, investment in skills and education can be viewed as building up human capital or knowledge capital, and investments in intellectual property can be viewed as building up intellectual capital. These terms lead to certain questions and controversies discussed in those articles. Human development theory describes human capital as being composed of distinct social, imitative and creative elements:

  • Social capital is the value of network trusting relationships between individuals in an economy.
  • Individual capital, which is inherent in persons, protected by societies, and trades labour for trust or money. Close parallel concepts are "talent", "ingenuity", "leadership", "trained bodies", or "innate skills" that cannot reliably be reproduced by using any combination of any of the others above. In traditional economic analysis individual capital is more usually called labour.

Further classifications of capital that have been used in various theoretical or applied uses include:

  • Financial capital, which represents obligations, and is liquidated as money for trade, and owned by legal entities. It is in the form of capital assets, traded in financial markets. Its market value is not based on the historical accumulation of money invested but on the perception by the market of its expected revenues and of the risk entailed.
  • Public capital, which encompasses the aggregate body of government-owned assets that are used to promote private industry productivity, including highways, railways, airports, water treatment facilities, telecommunications, electric grids, energy utilities, municipal buildings, public hospitals and schools, police, fire protection, courts and still others.
  • Natural capital, which is inherent in ecologies and protected by communities to support life, e.g., a river that provides farms with water.
  • Spiritual capital, which refers to the power, influence and dispositions created by a person or an organization s spiritual belief, knowledge and practice.

In part as a result, separate literatures have developed to describe both natural capital and social capital. Such terms reflect a wide consensus that nature and society both function in such a similar manner as traditional industrial infrastructural capital, that it is entirely appropriate to refer to them as different types of capital in themselves. In particular, they can be used in the production of other goods, are not used up immediately in the process of production, and can be enhanced (if not created) by human effort.

There is also a literature of intellectual capital and intellectual property law. However, this increasingly distinguishes means of capital investment, and collection of potential rewards for patent, copyright (creative or individual capital), and trademark (social trust or social capital) instruments. Capital (all types collectively) is often the tool that is leveraged in order to build wealth both personal and corporate.


Some thinkers, such as Werner Sombart and Max Weber, locate the concept of capital as originating in double-entry bookkeeping, which is thus a foundational innovation in capitalism, Sombart writing in "Medieval and Modern Commercial Enterprise" that:[4]

The very concept of capital is derived from this way of looking at things; one can say that capital, as a category, did not exist before double-entry bookkeeping. Capital can be defined as that amount of wealth which is used in making profits and which enters into the accounts."

Within classical economics, Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, Book II, Chapter 1) distinguished fixed capital from circulating capital. The former designated physical assets not consumed in the production of a product (e.g. machines and storage facilities), while the latter referred to physical assets consumed in the process of production (e.g. raw materials and intermediate products). For an enterprise, both were types of capital.

Karl Marx adds a distinction that is often confused with David Ricardo's. In Marxian theory, variable capital refers to a capitalist's investment in labor-power, seen as the only source of surplus-value. It is called "variable" since the amount of value it can produce varies from the amount it consumes, i.e., it creates new value. On the other hand, constant capital refers to investment in non-human factors of production, such as plant and machinery, which Marx takes to contribute only its own replacement value to the commodities it is used to produce. It is constant, in that the amount of value committed in the original investment, and the amount retrieved in the form of commodities produced, remains constant.

Investment or capital accumulation, in classical economic theory, is the production of increased capital. Investment requires that some goods be produced that are not immediately consumed, but instead used to produce other goods as a means of production. Investment is closely related to saving, though it is not the same. As Keynes pointed out, saving involves not spending all of one's income on current goods or services, while investment refers to spending on a specific type of goods, i.e., capital goods.

Austrian School economist Eugen von B hm-Bawerk maintained that capital intensity was measured by the roundaboutness of production processes. Since capital is defined by him as being goods of higher-order, or goods used to produce consumer goods, and derived their value from them, being future goods.

See also

Further reading


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