Consider Walmart (WMT), the leading 20th-century retailer, and Amazon (AMZN), the leading 21st-century retailer. By one metric they’re strikingly similar; their total market value is the same, about $250 billion each, according to consulting firm EVA Dimensions. But by another measure—one that goes to the heart of corporate performance—they’re radically different. Walmart needed $154 billion of capital to create that market value. Amazon achieved the same result using only $35 billion of capital.
That contrast illustrates a profound reality: The 21st-century corporation is forming a new relationship to capital. Traditionally defined capital, the financial and physical kind, is losing importance as the economy evolves. Today’s best-performing companies—Amazon, Alphabet (GOOG), Facebook (FB)—use little of it relative to their size. Some, such as Uber and Airbnb, use practically none. As the McKinsey Global Institute recently noted, “The most profitable industries … are asset-light in terms of physical capital.”
Even in industries that by their nature seem to demand loads of physical capital, it’s becoming less important. For example, industrial-scale digital printers, such as those used by textile and packaging manufacturers, are far smaller and less expensive than the giant lithographic presses they’re replacing. Similarly, additive manufacturing machines (3D printers) are smaller, cheaper, and more precise than the casting, forging, and lathing equipment they replace. In energy, as photovoltaic cells produce electricity at costs competitive with conventional power plants, house-size turbines become less necessary.
In addition, technology can make any capital more efficient. Assets such as cars and computer servers have long spent much of their time sitting idle, but Net-based scheduling is now putting that wasted time to use. The result: greater output from a smaller stock of capital.
As the role of traditional capital fades, nontraditional capital, especially the human kind, grows more important. Leaders of the 21st-century corporation will confront the question of whose capital is most valuable. Financiers, the kings of capitalism since it began, may find that mere money buys only a minority stake in today’s companies, which will be owned mainly by their most essential employees. That’s good news for workers with crucial skills; not so good for others, who increasingly can be replaced by advancing technology. Rising young tech companies routinely lure high-value workers by offering large packages of stock. That practice not only conserves operating cash but also reflects the reality that such companies often need top talent more than they need money from venture capitalists.
The consequences for capital markets could be mind-bending. Thanks to monetary stimulus and high savings rates, the world is awash in financial capital, but increasingly, that isn’t what corporations need most.
A version of this article appears in the February 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Heavy Hitters Travel Light.”