| Peter Klein |
Everyone’s talking about inequality. I confess don’t find inequality terribly interesting, intrinsically. Of course, inequality that results from special government privilege — the incomes of top executives at Lockheed Martin or Goldman Sachs, the speaking fees earned by Hillary Clinton, the wealth of US sugar farmers — should be analyzed and criticized, and those privileges removed. Firm policies that result in pay differentials — pay-for-performance schemes, for example — are important and interesting, not because they generate inequality per se, but because they have systematic and significant effects on firm behavior and performance. Of course, inequality may have important long-run social and cultural effects, but these are highly speculative and not obviously actionable.
I haven’t yet read Thomas Piketty’s new book but am aware of — and amazed by — the buzz it’s generating. I suspect most of the excitement reflects confirmation bias: people who think inequality is the major issue of our time naturally think this is the most important economics book of the decade, probably before reading it. (Naturally, I’d love to exploit that formula in marketing my own books.)
I do have a few thoughts on how the discussion is framed, in light of Piketty’s work. First, Piketty and his admirers define “capital” as a homogeneous, liquid pool of funds, not a heterogeneous stock of capital assets. This is not merely a terminological issue, as those familiar with the debates on capital theory from the 1930s and 1940s are well aware. Piketty’s approach focuses on the quantity of capital and, more importantly, the rate of return on capital. But these concepts make little sense from the perspective of Austrian capital theory, which emphasizes the complexity, variety, and quality of the economy’s capital structure. There is no way to measure the quantity of capital, nor would such a number be meaningful. The value of heterogeneous capital goods depends on their place in an entrepreneur’s subjective production plan. Production is fraught with uncertainty. Entrepreneurs acquire, deploy, combine, and recombine capital goods in anticipation of profit, but there is no such thing as a “rate of return on invested capital.” (more…)
| Peter Klein |
The International Society for New Institutional Economics has established four new awards, named after the pioneers of new institutional social science: the Ronald Coase Best Dissertation Award, Oliver Williamson Best Conference Paper Award, Douglass North Best Paper or Book Award, and Elinor Ostrom Lifetime Achievement Award. Details on the awards, and a call for nominations for the Coase, North, and Ostrom awards, are on the ISNIE site. (Sadly, my suggestion for a Best Organizational and Institutional Economics Blog Award was not heeded.)
| Peter Klein |
Do firm boundaries — defined as ownership of the relevant capital goods — affect firm behavior and performance? Or is the firm best understood as a nexus of contracts, in which ownership boundaries represent arbitrary legal distinctions? Coase, Williamson, Hart, and Foss and Klein take the former position, while Alchian (sometimes), Demsetz, Jensen, and Meckling lean toward the latter.
A very interesting paper from Amit Seru, “Firm Boundaries Matter: Evidence from Conglomerates and R&D Activity,” offers some empirical evidence on the effects of boundary choices on innovation, finding significant and important effects.
This paper examines the impact of the conglomerate form on the scale and novelty of corporate R&D activity. I exploit a quasi-experiment involving failed mergers to generate exogenous variation in acquisition outcomes of target firms. A difference-in-difference estimation reveals that, relative to failed targets, firms acquired in a diversifying mergers produce both a smaller number of innovations and also less novel innovations, where innovations are measured using patent-based metrics. The treatment effect is amplified if the acquiring conglomerate operates a more active internal capital market and is largely driven by inventors becoming less productive after the merger rather than inventor exits. Concurrently, acquirers move R&D activity outside the boundary of the firm via the use of strategic alliances and joint-ventures. There is complementary evidence that conglomerates with more novel R&D tend to operate with decentralized R&D budgets. These findings suggests that conglomerate organizational form affects the allocation and productivity of resources.
Here is a longer, less technical write-up on the Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation blog.
| Peter Klein |
That’s the title of an interesting new law review article by Kevin Davis (New York University Law Review, April 2013). Just as we can treat organizational structure as as sort of technology, and study the introduction and diffusion of new organizational forms with the same theories and methods used to study technological innovation and diffusion, we can think of contracts as structures or institutions that emerge, are subject to experimentation and competition, and evolve and diffuse. Here’s the abstract:
If technology means, “useful knowledge about how to produce things at low cost”, then contracts should qualify. Just as mechanical technologies are embodied in blueprints, technologies of contracting are embodied in contractual documents that serve as, “blueprints for collaboration”. This Article analyzes innovations in contractual documents using the same kind of framework that is used to analyze other kinds of technological innovation. The analysis begins by laying out an informal model of the demand for and supply of innovative contractual documents. The discussion of demand emphasizes the impact of innovations upon not only each party’s incentives to collaborate efficiently, but also upon reading costs and litigation costs. The analysis of supply considers both the generation and dissemination of innovations and emphasizes the importance of cumulative innovation, learning by-doing, economies of scale and scope, and trustworthiness. Recent literature has raised concerns about the extent to which law firms produce contractual innovations. In fact, a wide range of actors other than law firms supply contractual documents; including end users of contracts, specialized providers of legal documents, legal database firms, trade associations, and academic institutions. This article discusses the incentives and capabilities of each of these potential sources of innovation. It concludes by discussing potential interventions such as: (1) enhancing intellectual property rights, (2) relaxing rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law and, (3) creating or expanding publicly sponsored clearinghouses for contracts.
See also Lisa Berstein’s comment. (HT: Geoff Manne)
| Peter Klein |
A clever and funny entry for our ongoing series on the use and abuse of PowerPoint. It’s aimed at classroom presentations but applies, a fortiori, to any professional meeting, including (especially?) academic conferences. I especially appreciate this:
If your audience can understand everything it needs to from your slide show only, . . . cut out about 50 percent of the slides and 90 percent of the text. . . . Your slide show by itself should be incomprehensible. Because, to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, its most important part is what’s not on it. (I.e., you actually talking with people.)
I have a few quibbles, e.g., I generally avoid animations (having each point appear only as you mention it), but overall this is great advice, amusingly illustrated.
| Peter Klein |
As a behavioral economics skeptic I was intrigued by a recent NBER paper on worker responses to a change in the employment contract. Rajshri Jayaraman, Debraj Ray, and Francis de Vericourt studied an Indian tea plantation that changed its employment contract to weaken pay-for-performance incentives and found, initially, a substantial increase in output, suggesting a “happy-is-productive” effect that would make the pop psychologists proud. “This large and contrarian response to a flattening of marginal incentives is at odds with the standard model, including one that incorporates dynamic incentives, and it can only be partly accounted for by higher supervisory effort. We conclude that the increase is a ‘behavioral’ response.”
Alas, the effect was only temporary, becoming entirely reversed within a few months:
In fact, an entirely standard model with no behavioral or dynamic features that we estimate off the pre-change data, fits the observations four months after the contract change remarkably well. While not an unequivocal indictment of the recent emphasis on “behavioral economics,” the findings suggest that non-standard responses may be ephemeral, especially in employment contexts in which the baseline relationship is delineated by financial considerations in the first place. From an empirical perspective, therefore, it is ideal to examine responses to a contract change over an substantial period of time.
This looks to me like a Hawthorne effect. Given that much of the empirical literature in behavioral social science uses relatively short time horizons, I wonder how many of the findings can be explained this way? How many key “behavioral” results are short-term responses to changing management practices, workplace conditions, the employment contract, etc., rather than indicators of something more substantial about human behavior and motivation?
| Peter Klein |
An important announcement from Ning Wang, editor of Man and the Economy:
Man and the Economy
Call for Papers for a Special Issue in Memory of Ronald Coase
“R. H. Coase: The Man and His Ideas”
Man and the Economy will devote a special issue (December 2014) to the life and ideas of Ronald Coase, the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Economics and Founding Editor of this journal. During his long academic life, Coase devoted himself to economics, which, in his view, should investigate how the real world economy works, with all its imperfections. Coase viewed and practiced economics as a social science, a study of man creating wealth in society through various institutional arrangements. To honor the memory of Coase, we welcome original research articles that extend and develop the Coasian economics, including empirical studies of the structure of production and exchange. We also welcome critical and constructive commentaries that clarify and elaborate the Coasian themes, from a law-and-economics/new institutional economics perspective, which include, but not limited to, topics on transaction costs, property rights, theories of the firm and China’s economic transformation. In addition, we also welcome personal reflections and reminiscences of Coase as a colleague, a teacher, an editor, and/or a friend.
Submissions must be made online via the Journal’s website: http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/me
Deadline for submissions is September 30, 2014.
| Peter Klein |
A friend complains that management and entrepreneurship scholarship is confused about the concept of transaction costs. Authors rarely give explicit definitions. They conflate search costs, bargaining costs, measurement costs, agency costs, enforcement costs, etc. No one distinguishes between Coase’s, Williamson’s, and North’s formulations. “Transaction costs seem to be whatever the author wants them to be to justify the argument.”
It’s a fair point, and it applies to economics (and other social sciences and professional fields) too. I remember being asked by a prominent economist, back when I was a PhD student writing under Williamson, why transaction costs “don’t simply go to zero in the long run.” Indeed, contemporary organizational economics mostly uses terms like “contracting costs,” and since 1991 Williamson has tended to use “maladaptation costs” (while retaining the term “transaction cost economics”).
When I teach transaction costs I typically assign Doug Allen’s excellent 2000 essay from the Encyclopedia of Law and Economics and Lee and Alexandra Benhams’ more recent survey from my Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (unfortunately gated). Doug, for example, usefully distinguishes between a “neoclassical approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of exchanging well-defined property rights, and a “property-rights approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of defining and enforcing property rights.
What other articles, chapters, and reviews would you suggest to help clarify the definition and best use of the “transaction costs”? Or should we avoid the term entirely in favor of narrower and more precise words and phrases?
| Peter Klein |
A common myth is that successful technology companies are founded by people in their 20s (Scott Shane reports a median age of 39). Entrepreneurial creativity, in this particular sense, may peak at middle age.
We’ve previously noted interesting links between the literatures on artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial creativity, organization, and success, with particular reference to recent work by David Galenson. A new survey paper by Benjamin Jones, E.J. Reedy, and Bruce Weinberg on age and scientific creativity is also relevant to this discussion. They discuss the widely accepted empirical finding that scientific creativity — measured by high-profile scientific contributions such as Nobel Prizes — tends to peak in middle age. They also review more recent research on variation in creativity life cycles across fields and over time. Jones, for example, has observed that the median age of Nobel laureates has increased over the 20th century, which he attributes to the rapid growth in the body of accumulated knowledge one must master before making a breakthrough scientific contribution (the “burden of knowledge” thesis). Could the same hold through for founders of technology companies?
| Peter Klein |
A renewed interest in conglomerates has brought forth a HBR blog post from Herman Vantrappen and Daniel Deneffe, “Don’t Write Off the (Western) Focused Firm Yet.” As they rightly point out, the choice between a focus and diversity “depends on the context in which the business operates. Specifically, focused firms fare better in countries where society expects and gets public accountability of both firms and governments, while conglomerates succeed in nations with high public accountability deficits.” I would put it slightly differently: the choice between focused, single-business firms and diversified, multi-business enterprises depends on the relative performance of internal and external capital and labor markets. The institutional environment — the legal system, regulatory practices, accounting rules — plays a huge rule here, but social norms, technology, and the competitive environment also affect the efficient margin between between intra-firm and inter-firm resource allocation.
The point is that all forms of organization have costs and benefits. There is no uniquely “optimal” degree of diversification or hierarchy or vertical integration or any other aspect of firm structure; the choice depends on the circumstances. Instead of favoring one particular organizational form we should be promoting an environment in which entrepreneurs can experiment with different approaches, with competition determining the right choice in each context. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Update: From Joe Mahoney I learn that not only was Chairman Mao’s actual exhortation “Let a hundred flowers blossom,” but also he may have meant it sarcastically: “It is sometimes suggested that the initiative was a deliberate attempt to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to show themselves as critical of the regime.” My usage was of course sincere. :)
| Peter Klein |
Some interesting review issues and special collections are hot off the virtual presses. The Journal of Management has just released its annual review issue with a number of valuable papers, including this one of particular interest to the O&M crowd:
The Many Futures of Contracts: Moving Beyond Structure and Safeguarding to Coordination and Adaptation
Donald J. Schepker, Won-Yong Oh, Aleksey Martynov, and Laura Poppo
In this article, we review the literature on interfirm contracting in an effort to synthesize existing research and direct future scholarship. While transaction cost economics (TCE) is the most prominent perspective informing the “optimal governance” and “safeguarding” function of contracts, our review indicates other perspectives are necessary to understand how contracts are structured: relational capabilities (i.e., building cooperation, creating trust), firm capabilities, relational contracts, and the real option value of a contract. Our review also indicates that contract research is moving away from a narrow focus on contract structure and its safeguarding function toward a broader focus that also highlights adaptation and coordination. We end by noting the following research gaps: consequences of contracting, specifically outcome assessment; strategic options, decision rights, and the evolution of dynamic capabilities; contextual constraints of relational capabilities; contextual constraints of contracting capabilities; complements, substitutes, and bundles; and contract structure and social process.
The always-interesting Strategic Organization has also released a package of previously published papers as a virtual special issue titled “Whither Strategy?” I have a soft spot for anything using the word “whither,” but this is a great collection by any name. Check out the ToC:
- Advancing strategy and organization research in concert: Towards an integrated model? | Durand, R. 2012. Volume 10, Issue 3. pp.297-303
- The end of strategy? | Farjoun, M. 2007. Volume 5, Issue 3. pp.197-210
- Strategic organization: A field in search of micro-foundations | Felin, T., & Foss, N.J. 2005. Volume 3, Issue 4. pp.441-455
- The disintegration of strategic management: it’s time to consolidate our gains | Hambrick, D.C. 2004. Volume 2, Issue 1. pp.91-98
- Stylized facts, empirical research and theory development in management | Helfat, C.E. 2007. Volume 5, Issue 2. pp.185-192
- So you call that research?: mending methodological biases in strategy and organization departments of top business schools | Heugens, P., & Mol, M.J. 2005. Volume 3, Issue 1. pp.117-128
- Process thinking in strategic organization | Langley, A. 2007. Volume 5, Issue 3. pp.271-282
- The field of strategic management within the evolving science of strategic organization | Mahoney, J.T., & McGahan, A.M. 2007. Volume 5, Issue 1. pp.79-99
- Walking the walk as well as talking the talk: replication and the normal science paradigm in strategic management research | Mezias, S.J., & Regnier, M.O. 2007. Volume 5, Issue 3. pp.283-296
- Paradigm prison, or in praise of atheoretic research | Miller, D. 2007. Volume 5, Issue 2. pp.177-184
- The Strategy Research Initiative: Recognizing and encouraging high-quality research in strategy | Oxley, J.E., Rivkin, J.W., & Ryall, M.D. 2010. Volume 8, Issue 4. pp.377-386
- The brain as substitute for strategic organization | Powell, T.C., & Puccinelli, N.M. 2012. Volume 10, Issue 3. pp.207-214
- The cultural side of value creation | Ravasi, D., Rindova, V., & Dalpiaz, E. 2012. Volume 10, Issue 3. pp.231-239
- A sociological perspective on strategic organization | Ruef, M. 2003. Volume 1, Issue 2. pp.241-251
- Strategy-as-practice meets neo-institutional theory | Suddaby, R., Seidl, D., & Le, J.K. 2013. Volume 11, Issue 3. pp.329-344
- How to connect strategy research with braoder issues that matter? | Vaara, E., & Durand, R. 2012. Volume 10, Issue 3. pp.248-255
- Big Strategy/Small Strategy | Whittington, R. 2012. Volume 10, Issue 3. pp.263-268
| Peter Klein |
I believe it was Alan Coddington who coined the term “hydraulic Keynesianism” to describe the typical macroeconomics textbooks of the 1950s, “conceiving the economy at the aggregate level in terms of disembodied and homogeneous flows.” The term also has a great visual quality, bringing forth an image of the economy as a giant machine with pumps and tubes and dials and levers, carefully controlled by wise government planners. (Such a machine was actually built by Bill Phillips of Phillips Curve fame.)
Apparently the Atlanta Fed has produced an educational video, “Money as Communication,” solemnly explaining the vital role of the Federal Reserve System in maintaining price stability. Mike Shedlock provides an amusing point-by-point commentary on the video, which surely ranks among the best of government propaganda films. I especially liked the image below, taken from the video, which neatly encapsulates the Fed’s view of its own role in the economic system.
The woman at the keyboard has the wrong hair color to be Janet Yellen, and the man in the middle has too much hair to be Ben Bernanke, but I’m sure the intended audience — schoolchildren and New York Times reporters — will get the idea.
Update: Here is an earlier post by Nicolai on the Phillips Machine.
| Peter Klein |
The job-market value of education, as famously argued by Michael Spence (1974), derives from two sources: additions to human capital and signaling. By going to college, you learn some useful skills, but you also demonstrate to potential employers that you have the natural ability to earn a degree. Depending on the difficulty of obtaining a degree for students of varying abilities, a college degree may be valuable even if you don’t learn a thing — you distinguish yourself from those who weren’t clever or patient enough to jump through the necessary hoops.
Of course, the human-capital and signaling components aren’t mutually exclusive. But, as long as at least some part of the job-market value of education comes from signaling, the demand for higher education depends on its perceived signaling value, relative to the cost of signaling. And herein lies the rub: getting a college degree is a very costly signal. Suppose high-ability workers could demonstrate their value to the job market by obtaining some credential that low-ability workers can’t or won’t obtain, without forgoing the explicit and opportunity costs of 4+ years at college. This would be an attractive alternative for many, and bad news for the higher-education industry, which today has a virtual monopoly on credentialing.
Michael Staton makes precisely this argument in today’s HBR Blog: “The Degree Is Doomed.” Staton argues that new technologies increasingly allow the unbundling of the learning and signaling functions of higher education, and that alternative signals such as “work samples, personal representations, peer and manager reviews, shared content, and scores and badges” are undermining the value of the college degree.
There are sites — notably Degreed and Accredible — that adapt existing notions of the credential to a world of online courses and project work. But there are also entire sectors of the innovation economy that are ceasing to rely on traditional credentials and don’t even bother with the skeumorph of an adapted degree. Particularly in the Internet’s native careers – design and software engineering — communities of practice have emerged that offer signals of types and varieties that we couldn’t even imagine five years ago. Designers now show their work on Dribbble or other design posting and review sites. Software engineers now store their code on GitHub, where other software engineers will follow them and evaluate the product of their labor. On these sites, peers not only review each other but interact in ways that build reputations within the community. User profiles contain work samples and provide community generated indicators of status and skill.
These are specialized areas, and probably not substitutes for the credentialing function for other fields and industries. But low-cost, innovative, specialized signaling methods could pose a significant challenge to the university establishment.
Of course, even if higher education loses its credentialing function, it can still add value the old-fashioned way, through teaching.
Those of you attending this weekend’s ASSA meeting in Philadelphia may want to catch a great session sponsored by ISNIE and titled “The Economic Institutions of Higher Education.” I am presenting along with Henry Manne and Sarah Smith; Scott Masten is chairing and discussants are Bob Gibbons, Henry Hansmann, and Jeff Furman. The session is Saturday, January 4 at 2:30pm in the Philadelphia Marriott, Grand Ballroom, Salon L
| Peter Klein |
It’s been another fine year at O&M. 2013 witnessed 129 new posts, 197,531 page views, and 114,921 unique visitors. Here are the most popular posts published in 2013. Read them again for entertainment and enlightenment!
- Rise of the Three-Essays Dissertation
- Ronald Coase (1910-2013)
- Sequestration and the Death of Mainstream Journalism
- Post AoM: Are Management Types Too Spoiled?
- Nobel Miscellany
- The Myth of the Flattening Hierarchy
- Climate Science and the Scientific Method
- Bulletin: Brian Arthur Has Just Invented Austrian Economics
- Solution to the Economic Crisis? More Keynes and Marx
- Armen Alchian (1914-2013)
- My Response to Shane (2012)
- Your Favorite Books, in One Sentence
- Does Boeing Have an Outsourcing Problem?
- Doug Allen on Alchian
- New Paper on Austrian Capital Theory
- Hard and Soft Obscurantism
- Mokyr on Cultural Entrepreneurship
- Microfoundations Conference in Copenhagen, June 13-15, 2014
- On Academic Writing
- Steven Klepper
- Entrepreneurship and Knowledge
- Easy Money and Asset Bubbles
- Blind Review Blindly Reviewing Itself
- Reflections on the Explanation of Heterogeneous Firm Capability
- Do Markets “React” to Economic News?
Thanks to all of you for your patronage, commentary, and support!
| Peter Klein |
Here’s Craig’s initial (and hopefully not final!) response to David Kocieniewski’s “farrago of dishonesty, insinuations, innuendo, and ad hominem.” As expected, Craig pulls no punches. Kocieniewski’s failure to point out that most of Craig’s professional work argues against the interests of his alleged paymasters “betrays his utter unprofessionalism and bias, and is particularly emblematic of the shockingly shoddy excuse for journalism that his piece represents.” The insinuation that Craig’s paid work deals with speculation, when none of it does, is “misleading, deceptive, and plainly libelous.” The Times piece is riddled with factual and chronological errors, deliberately inserted to score political points: “dishonest to its very core because of its egregiously biased omission of some essential material facts and deceptive presentation of others.” I can’t say I’m surprised; this is mainstream journalism, after all.
Craig also provides this roundup of posts defending him and Scott Irwin, including ours.
| Peter Klein |
The NYT runs a hatchet-job on the brilliant financial economist (and former O&M guest blogger) Craig Pirrong. Apparently Craig not only does academic research on commodity markets and participates in public policy debates about commodity-market regulation but also — gasp! — is a paid consultant for commodity-trading firms. Without detailing any specific impropriety, the Times implies that Craig is little more than a shill for big evil corporations, or something. “Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward,” screams the Times headline.
Thousands of economists are paid consultants for the Federal Reserve System, World Bank, IMF, USDA, and virtually every government agency around the world, but you will never hear the Times suggest that their research or public advocacy could in the slightest way be compromised by these ties. As Larry White and E. C. Pasour have pointed out, the academic work funded by government agencies nearly always — surprise! — comes out in defense of those agencies, their missions, and their generous contributions to the public good. Did the prospect of heading the world’s most powerful economic planing agency influence Janet Yellen’s public testimony, her research, or her leadership at the San Francisco Fed? Can you imagine a Times headline, “Academics Who Defend Fed Reap Reward”?
Scott Irwin, a distinguished agricultural economist at the University of Illinois is also targeted. Again, the message is clear. If you oppose the Times’s editorial position on regulation (or any other issue), you are compromised by financial or other ties. If you support the Times’s position, you are a scholar or public figure of great integrity.
Update: See also Felix Salmon’s excellent summary of the “non-scandal.”
| Peter Klein |
Researchers: You rate products and sellers on Amazon and Ebay, you describe your travel experiences on TripAdvisor, and your students judge you on ratemyprofessors.com. I don’t know any systematic evidence on this, but consultants and journalists seem to think that companies are better off letting customers rate (and rant) online, even if this makes it more difficult to manage the brand.
A new venture called SciRev is encouraging researchers to rate their experiences with particular journals: how long are papers turned around, how good are the referee reports, how responsive is the editorial office. It’s not quite open-source peer review, because the specific papers and authors are anonymous (as far as I can tell), but it represents an interesting experiment in opening up the publishing process, at least in terms of author feedback on journals.
SciRev is a website made by researchers for researchers. The information provided by you and your fellow authors is freely available to the entire research community. In this way we aim to make the scientific review process more transparent. Efficient journals get credits for their efforts to improve their review process and the way they handle manuscripts. Less efficient journals are stimulated to put energy in organizing things better. Researchers can search for a journal with a speedy review procedure and have their papers published earlier. Editors get the opportunity to compare their journal’s performance with that of others and to provide information about their journal at our website.
SciRev aims to help science by making the peer review process more efficient. This process is one of the weakest links in the process of scientific knowledge production. Valuable papers may spent several months to over a year at reviewers’ desks and editorial offices before a decision is taken. This is a serious time loss in a process that in other respects has become much more efficient in the last decades. SciRev helps speeding up this process by making it more transparent. Researchers get the possibility to share their review experiences with their colleagues, who therefore can make a better informed choice for a journal to submit their work to. Journals that manage to set up a more efficient review process and which handle manuscripts better are rewarded for this and may attract more and better manuscripts.
There are only a few reviews at this point, so not much information to consume, but I like the concept. And I may be submitting some reviews of my own… (Thanks to Bronwyn Hall for the tip.)
| Peter Klein |
Diversification continues to be a central issue for strategic management, industrial organization, and corporate finance. There are huge research and practitioner literatures on why firms diversify, how diversification affects financial, operating, and innovative performance, what underlies inter-industry relatedness, how diversification ties into other aspects of firm strategy and organization, whether diversification is driven by regulation or other policy choices, and so on. There are many surveys of these literatures (Lasse and I contributed this one).
Some of the most interesting research deals with the institutional environment. For example, many US corporations were widely diversified in the 1960s and 1970s when the brokerage industry was small and protected by tough legal restrictions on entry, antitrust policy frowned on vertical and horizontal growth (maybe), and a volatile macroeconomic environment encouraged internalization of inter-firm transactions (also maybe). After the brokerage industry was deregulated in 1975, the antitrust environment became more relaxed, and the market for corporate control heated up, many conglomerates were restructured into more efficient, specialized firms. To quote myself:
The investment community in the 1960s has been described as a small, close-knit group wherein competition was minimal and peer influence strong (Bernstein, 1992). As Bhide (1990, p. 76) puts it, “internal capital markets … may well have possessed a signiﬁcant edge because the external markets were not highly developed. In those days, one’s success on Wall Street reportedly depended far more on personal connections than analytical prowess.” When capital markets became more competitive in the 1970s, the relative importance of internal capital markets fell. “This competitive process has resulted in a signiﬁcant increase in the ability of our external capital markets to monitor corporate performance and allocate resources” (Bhide, 1990, p. 77). As the cost of external ﬁnance has fallen, ﬁrms have tended to rely less on internal ﬁnance, and thus the value added from internal-capital-market allocation has fallen. . . .
Similarly, corporate refocusing can be explained as a consequence of the rise of takeover by tender offer rather than proxy contest, the emergence of new ﬁnancial techniques and instruments like leveraged buyouts and high-yield bonds, and the appearance of takeover and breakup specialists like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which themselves performed many functions of the conglomerate headquarters (Williamson, 1992). A related literature looks at the relative importance of internal capital markets in developing economies, where external capital markets are limited (Khanna and Palepu 1999, 2000).
The key reference is to Amar Bhide’s 1990 article “Reversing Corporate Diversification,” which deserves to be better known. But note also the pointer to Khanna and Palepu’s important work on diversified business groups in emerging markets, which has also led to a vibrant empirical literature. The idea there is that weak institutions lead to poorly performing capital and labor markets, leading firms to internalize functions that would otherwise be performed between firms. More generally, firm strategy and organization varies systematically with the institutional environment, both over time and across countries and regions.
Surprisingly, diversified business groups were also common in the US, in the early 20th century, which brings me (finally) to the point of this post. A new NBER paper by Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, and Yishay Yafeh studies these groups and reaches some interesting and provocative conclusions. Check it out:
Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, Yishay Yafeh
NBER Working Paper No. 19691, December 2013
The extent to which business groups ever existed in the United States and, if they did exist, the reasons for their disappearance are poorly understood. In this paper we use hitherto unexplored historical sources to construct a comprehensive data set to address this issue. We find that (1) business groups, often organized as pyramids, existed at least as early as the turn of the twentieth century and became a common corporate form in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly in public utilities (e.g., electricity, gas and transportation) but also in manufacturing; (2) In contrast with modern business groups in emerging markets that are typically diversified and tightly controlled, many US groups were focused in a single sector and controlled by apex firms with dispersed ownership; (3) The disappearance of US business groups was largely complete only in 1950, about 15 years after the major anti-group policy measures of the mid-1930s; (4) Chronologically, the demise of business groups preceded the emergence of conglomerates in the United States by about two decades and the sharp increase in stock market valuation by about a decade, so that a causal link between these events is hard to establish, although there may well be a connection between them. We conclude that the prevalence of business groups is not inconsistent with high levels of investor protection; that US corporate ownership as we know it today evolved gradually over several decades; and that policy makers should not expect policies that restrict business groups to have an immediate effect on corporate ownership.
| Peter Klein |
Former guest blogger Steve Postrel weighs in on the future of the dynamic capabilities approach (reprinted, with permission, from a thread on Academia.edu). Steve responds to the question, “Is the dynamic capabilities approach outdated?” with some typical insightful remarks.
Since DC is primarily an ex post facto construct measured by sampling on the dependent variable — i.e., if the firm successfully adapts, then it had DC — its prominence is not a sign that it is doing much intellectual work. . . .
[T]o a first approximation, arguments for the importance of DC have tended to be of the form “We know a priori that firms need to be able to change their operational capabilities from time to time; we have examples of successful firms that have adapted in this way and examples of less-successful firms that haven’t; therefore we can say that the successful adapters had more of this valuable thing we will call ‘dynamic capability.’”
Certainly there have been empirical papers that do better than that, by, for example, trying to look at firms that have adapted multiple times, or by identifying specific organizational structures and practices that might enhance adaptability. The difficult issue with looking at a “precursor” like experience is that theoretically experience could reduce DC by causing specialization and lock-in. Other putative precursors suffer from the ex post measurement problem — how do we know if a firm has the right knowledge for adaptation until we see whether it succeeds?
I suspect there are also deeper conceptual problems because DC is equivocal even with perfect measurement. It would be pretty hard to specify what one meant by the “amount” of DC a firm has or to compare the “amounts” that any two firms have. DC is certainly not a completely ordering relation and I’m not sure it’s even a partial order. Without presenting formal models and going back and forth between those and peoples’ intuition about what DC is “supposed” to mean, however, one really can’t pin these problems down enough to tell if they are serious. . . . (more…)