Archive for January, 2012

Virtual Ownership and Managerial Distance

| Dick Langlois |

If you’re in New York on February 6, you might want to go hear the always-interesting Henry Hansmann talk about work he is doing with Nicolai’s CBS colleague Steen Thomsen. The talk is at 4:20 in Room 701 Jerome Greene Hall at Columbia. This is part of the Columbia Law and Economics Workshop. (I’m on their mailing list but seldom have the time to make the trip.) Here’s the abstract:

Industrial foundations are nonprofit holding companies that own business firms. These entities are common in Northern Europe, and many successful international companies are owned in thus fashion. Because of their strong economic performance and unusual combination of nonprofit and for-profit entities, they present interesting challenges to theories of the firm. In this paper, we present the first study of the manner in which the foundations govern the companies that they own. We work with a rich data set comprising 121 foundation-owned Danish companies over the period 2003-2008.

We focus in particular on a composite structural factor that we term “managerial distance.” We interpret this as a measure of the clarity and objectivity with which a foundation-owned company’s top managers are induced to focus on the company’s profitability. More particularly, managerial distance seems best interpreted as a factor, or aggregate of component factors, that put the foundation board in the position of “virtual owners,” in the sense that the information and decisions facing the managers are framed for them in roughly the way they would be framed for profit-seeking outside owners of the company. Our empirical analysis shows a positive, significant, and robust association between managerial distance and company economic performance. The findings appear to illuminate not just foundation governance, but corporate governance and fiduciary behavior more generally.

30 January 2012 at 9:46 am Leave a comment

Birger Wernerfelt to Become Honorary Doctor at CBS

| Nicolai Foss |

Over the last few years, CBS has bestowed honorary doctoral degrees on the likes of Jay Barney, Oliver Williamson, Oliver Hart, Michael Brennan, and other luminaries in strategy, the theory of the firm, and finance (in addition to a number of reps of pomo in management research that are of small interest to O&M readers). At a ceremony on 19 April a CBS honorary doctorate will be bestowed upon Birger Wernerfelt.

Wernerfelt is the JC Penney Professor of Management of the MIT Sloan School of Management. A Danish citizen, Wernerfelt holds degrees from the University of Copenhagen and Harvard. Wernerfelt’s best known work is no doubt “A Resource-based View of the Firm.” With more than 12,000 cites (google scholar) this paper is also one of the most cited social science research articles ever, and, of course, one of the founding papers of strategy’s (still) dominant view, the resource-based approach. The paper develops a conception of firms as bundles of heterogeneous and partly firm-specific resources, and links this conception to sustainable performance differences between firms as well as to growth strategies through resource-based diversification. These ideas opened up several paths of research in strategic management in the following decades, including Wernerfelt’s own influential empirical work (with Cynthia Montgomery) on diversification and its link to performance (e.g., here).

More recently, Wernerfelt has been working on other truly fundamental aspects of the theory of the firm, namely the reason why firms exist and what explains their boundaries and internal organization. Thus, in a series of papers, Wernerfelt has developed an argument that the employment relationship exists because it allows the parties to the contract to exploit economies of scale in bargaining costs (e.g., here) — a stream that may be seen as  much more true to the original message in Coase’s (1937) “The Nature of the Firm” than the asset-specificity branch of the theory of the firm. Wernerfelt has extended the argument to the understanding of asset ownership, communication within and between firms, and the strength of incentives in firms versus markets. In addition to these contributions to strategic management and the theory of the firm, Wernerfelt has contributed to the economics of search and numerous important contribution to marketing theory.

29 January 2012 at 8:52 am 1 comment

Finance and the Nature of the Firm

| Peter Klein |

Raghu Rajan’s AFA presidential address is now online as an NBER working paper:

The nature of the firm and its financing are closely interlinked. To produce significant net present value, an entrepreneur has to transform her enterprise into one that is differentiated from the ordinary. To achieve the control that will allow her to execute this strategy, she needs to have substantial ownership, and thus financing. But it is hard to raise finance against differentiated assets. So an entrepreneur has to commit to undertake a second transformation, standardization, that will make the human capital in the firm, including her own, replaceable, so that outside financiers obtain rights over going-concern surplus. I argue that the availability of a vibrant stock market helps the entrepreneur commit to these two transformations in a way that a debt market would not. This helps explain why the nature of firms and the extent of innovation differ so much in different financing environments.

25 January 2012 at 6:47 am Leave a comment

Life in the Echo Chamber

| Peter Klein |

You’ve all heard the story of the Manhattan socialite who expressed shock at Nixon’s landslide 1972 victory because “nobody I know voted for him.” (Attributed variously to Pauline Kael, Katharine Graham, Susan Sontag, and others, and probably apocryphal, but who cares; it’s a great quote.) I was reminded of this by a line in Larry Summers’s confidential 2008 economic policy memo now making the rounds, courtesy of the New Yorker: “Greg Mankiw is the only economist we have consulted with [about the optimal stimulus package] who refused to name a number and was generally skeptical about stimulus.” How can a huge stimulus package be wrong — everybody I know favors it!

(For the record, the economists consulted — supposedly representing the full spectrum of legitimate opinion — were Robert Reich (recommended stimulus: $1.2 trillion over 2 years), Joe Siglitz ($1 trillion over two years), Paul Krugman ($600 billion in one year), Jamie Galbraith ($900 billion in one year), Dean Baker and colleagues ($900 billion), Marty Feldstein ($400 billion in one year), Larry Lindsey ($800 billion to $1 trillion), Ken Rogoff ($1 trillion over two years), Mark Zandi ($600 billion in one year), an unnamed group of Fed officials (over $600 billion), Adam Posen ($500-700 billion in one year), and an unnamed group at Goldman Sachs(!) ($600 billion). So, we’ve got left-wing Keynesians, right-wing Keynesians, moderate Keynesians, Robert Reich who wouldn’t know a Keynesian from a Kenyan, and Goldman Sachs. How’s that for diversity of opinion?)

Update: Mankiw agrees: “Of course, the fact that I was ‘the only economist’ expressing skepticism reflects the range of economists that Team Obama chose to consult.”

24 January 2012 at 12:06 pm 3 comments

Perceptions of Opportunities – Part 1

| Peter Lewin |

The January 2012 issue of the AMR (available here for subscribers or those with academic access) features two review articles assessing the progress of the “Promise” examined in the well-known article by Scott Shane and Sankaran Venkataraman (AMR 2000: The Promise of Entrepreneurship as a Field of Research) — one from each of the original co-authors. The first is an interesting, if somewhat pedestrian, article by Scott Shane. The second is a much more profound and ambitious contribution by Venkataraman together with Saras Sarasvathy, Nicholas Dew, and William Forster.

In the decade since that article there has, indeed, been a significant shift in the focus of research in entrepreneurship. Most notable, perhaps, is the focus on entrepreneurial “opportunities” — familiar to Austrian economists from the work of Israel Kirzner, but by now a standard element in the story. Each of the articles spends considerable time revisiting questions about the nature of entrepreneurial opportunities and provides its own resolutions. Here I will provide just a quick overview of this part of Shane’s article. (I intend to provide one for the second article soon).

In considering the “nexus of opportunities and individuals” offered originally in “Promise” as a reason to shift attention from the person to the function, Shane addresses the question of whether entrepreneurial opportunities should be considered “objective” or “subjective” — a question that has proliferated in this research stream, albeit with varying focus and terminology. The problem is, it seems to me, that the notion of “opportunity” is one that depends on the formation of a mental image by some individual or individuals. Opportunity implies plan — a plan of action to use, transform, combine, existing resources in a profitable way. Without the plan there is just the world. So how can “opportunity” be objective? This is related to the question: are opportunities “discovered” (Alvarez and Barney: Organizaҫões em Contexto, 2007) or are they created; or in the words of Venkataraman, et. al. are they made or found? (more…)

23 January 2012 at 3:38 pm 18 comments

Charles Dickens, Capitalist

| Peter Klein |

Did you know 2012 is the centenary of Charles Dickens’s birth? Dickens is often lumped with Carlyle, Shaw, Ruskin, etc. as a Romantic, Victorian, literary anti-capitalist. (Carlyle indeed disliked capitalism, but not for the usual reasons.) But Dickens, as I originally learned from Paul Cantor, was a wildly successful capitalist and entrepreneur, a driving force behind the great nineteenth-century innovation of the serialized, commercial novel. Consider the following from one Dickens scholar:

Stephen Marcus has called Dickens “the first capitalist of literature” in the sense that he worked within apparently adverse conditions to take advantage of new technologies and markets, creating, in effect, an entirely new role for fiction. In Charles Dickens and His Publishers, Robert Patten quotes Oscar Dystel (president and chief executive of Bantam Paperbacks) on the three “key factors” in his development of a successful paperback line: availability of new material, introduction of the rubber plate rotary press, and development of magazine wholesalers as a distribution arm. As Patten points out, parallel factors operated in the Victorian era: a plethora of writers, new technologies, and expanded distribution. And as methods of papermaking, printing, and platemaking increased in efficiency, so did means of transportation. By 1836, a crucial network of wholesale book outlets in the Strand, peddlers, provincial shops, and the royal mailmade possible by the development of paved roads, fast coaches, and eventually the national railway systemhad been consolidated. The final task facing early publishers was, then, to develop the newly accessible market for their commodity. By lowering prices, emphasizing illustrations and sensational elements, and increasing variety of both form and content, publishers created readers within the largest demographic groups: the rising middle and working classes, where readers had essentially not existed before. . . . (more…)

23 January 2012 at 10:00 am 6 comments

Management in Popular Culture

| Peter Klein |

I recently read Planet of the Apes, the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle that inspired the movie franchise. Not surprisingly, the book is far more interesting and intelligent than the films. In the novel (spoiler alert!), the ape planet isn’t a future Earth, but a distant world much like Earth in which apes gradually assimilated and displaced a former human civilization simply by imitating their masters. The discovery of this older civilization (confirmed by the remains a talking human doll, as in the 1968 movie) explains the mystery of why ape culture stagnated at the level of its former human model. The apes could imitate, but not innovate.

The human protagonist convinces himself that imitation could produce a reasonable quality of science and art, then turns to more mundane activities.

It seemed absolutely clear that industry did not require the presence of a rational being to maintain itself. Basically, industry consisted of manual laborers, always performing the selfsame tasks, who could easily be replaced by apes; and, at a higher level, of executives whose function was to draft certain reports and pronounce ceratin words under given circumstances. All this was a question of conditioned reflexes. At the still higher level of administration, it seemed even easier to concede the quality of aping. To continue our system, the gorillas would merely have to imitate certain attitudes and deliver a few harangues, all based on the same model.

Not a flattering portrait of management, but keep in mind that the protagonist (like the book’s author) is French.

20 January 2012 at 3:35 pm 7 comments

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Peter G. Klein and Micheal E. Sykuta, eds., The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (Edward Elgar, 2010).
Peter G. Klein, The Capitalist and the Entrepreneur: Essays on Organizations and Markets (Mises Institute, 2010).
Richard N. Langlois, The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism: Schumpeter, Chandler, and the New Economy (Routledge, 2007).
Nicolai J. Foss, Strategy, Economic Organization, and the Knowledge Economy: The Coordination of Firms and Resources (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Raghu Garud, Arun Kumaraswamy, and Richard N. Langlois, eds., Managing in the Modular Age: Architectures, Networks and Organizations (Blackwell, 2003).
Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, eds., Entrepreneurship and the Firm: Austrian Perspectives on Economic Organization (Elgar, 2002).
Nicolai J. Foss and Volker Mahnke, eds., Competence, Governance, and Entrepreneurship: Advances in Economic Strategy Research (Oxford, 2000).
Nicolai J. Foss and Paul L. Robertson, eds., Resources, Technology, and Strategy: Explorations in the Resource-based Perspective (Routledge, 2000).

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