A perplexingly common mistake among market evangelists is the assumption that wealth amassed represents value created. “There is one sort of labour,” wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, “which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour.”
Wealth can be a sign that tremendous value has been created for investors, customers and society more broadly. But wealth can also be captured rather than created. And while that works well for the capturer, the game is zero-sum, or even value-destroying, in aggregate. The private equity industry offers a fascinating case study in the importance of distinguishing between these scenarios.