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Rich Makadok on Formal Modeling and Firm Strategy

[A guest post from Rich Makadok, lifted from the comments section of the Tirole post below.]

Peter invited me to reply to [Warren Miller's] comment, so I’ll try to offer a defense of formal economic modeling.

In answering Peter’s invitation, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I am definitely NOT an IO economist (perhaps because I actually CAN relax). Rather, I’m a strategy guy — far more interested in studying the private welfare of firms than the public welfare of economies (plus, it pays better and is more fun). So, I am in a much better position to comment on the benefits that the game-theoretic toolbox is currently starting to bring to the strategy field than on the benefits that it has brought to the economics discipline over the last four decades (i.e., since Akerlof’s 1970 Lemons paper really jump-started the trend).

Peter writes, “game theory was supposed to add transparency and ‘rigor’ to the analysis.” I have heard this argument many times (e.g., Adner et al, 2009 AMR), and I think it is a red herring, or at least a side show. Yes, formal modeling does add transparency and rigor, but that’s not its main benefit. If the only benefit of formal modeling were simply about improving transparency and rigor then I suspect that it would never have achieved much influence at all. Formal modeling, like any research tool or method, is best judged according to the degree of insight — not the degree of precision — that it brings to the field.

I can’t think of any empirical researcher who has gained fame merely by finding techniques to reduce the amount of noise in the estimate of a regression parameter that has already been the subject of other previous studies. Only if that improved estimation technique generates results that are dramatically different from previous results (or from expected results) would the improved precision of the estimate matter much — i.e., only if the improved precision led to a valuable new insight. In that case, it would really be the insight that mattered, not the precision. The impact of empirical work is proportionate to its degree of new insight, not to its degree of precision. The excruciatingly unsophisticated empirical methods in Ned Bowman’s highly influential “Risk-Return Paradox” and “Risk-Seeking by Troubled Firms” papers provide a great example of this point.

The same general principle is true of theoretical work as well. I can’t think of any formal modeler who has gained fame merely by sharpening the precision of an existing verbal theory. Such minor contributions, if they get published at all, are barely noticed and quickly forgotten. A formal model only has real impact when it generates some valuable new insight. As with empirics, the insight is what really matters, not the precision. (more…)

14 October 2014 at 11:25 am 17 comments

Tirole

| Peter Klein |

As a second-year economics PhD student I took the field sequence in industrial organization. The primary text in the fall course was Jean Tirole’s Theory of Industrial Organization, then just a year old. I found it a difficult book — a detailed overview of the “new,” game-theoretic IO, featuring straightforward explanations and numerous insights and useful observations but shot through with brash, unsubstantiated assumptions and written in an extremely terse, almost smug style that rubbed me the wrong way. After all, game theory was supposed to add transparency and “rigor” to the analysis, bringing to light the hidden assumptions of the old-fashioned, verbal models, but Tirole combined math and ad hoc verbal asides in equal measure. (Sample statement: “The Coase theorem (1960) asserts that an optimal allocation of resources can always be achieved through market forces, irrespective of the legal liability assignment, if information is perfect and transactions are costless.” And then: “We conclude that the Coase theorem is unlikely to apply here and that selective government intervention may be desirable.”) Well, that’s the way formal theorists write and, if you know the code and read wisely, you can gain insight into how these economists think about things. Is it the best way to learn about real markets and real competition? Tirole takes it as self-evident that MIT-style theory is a huge advance over the earlier IO literature, which he characterizes as “the old oral tradition of behavioral stories.” He does not, to my knowledge, deal with the “new learning” of the 1960s and 1970s, associated mainly with Chicago economists (but also Austrian and public choice economists) that emphasized informational and incentive problems of regulators as well as firms.

Tirole is one of the most important economists in modern theoretical IO, public economics, regulation, and corporate finance, and it’s no surprise that the Nobel committee honored him with today’s prize. The Nobel PR team struggled to summarize his contributions for the nonspecialist reader (settling on the silly phrase that his work shows how to “tame” big firms) but you can find decent summaries in the usual places (e.g., WSJ, NYTEconomist) and sympathetic, even hagiographic treatments in the blogosphere (Cowen, Gans). By all accounts Tirole is a nice guy and an excellent teacher, as well as the first French economics laureate since Maurice Allais, so bully for him.

I do think Tirole-style IO is an improvement over the old structure-conduct-performance paradigm, which focused on simple correlations, rather than causal explanations and eschewed comparative institutional analysis, modeling regulators as omniscient, benevolent dictators. The newer approach starts with agency theory and information theory — e.g., modeling regulators as imperfectly informed principals and regulated firms as agents whose actions might differ from those preferred by their principals — and thus draws attention to underlying mechanisms, differences in incentives and information, dynamic interaction, and so on. However, the newer approach ultimately rests on the old market structure / market power analysis in which monopoly is defined as the short-term ability to set price above marginal cost, consumer welfare is measured as the area under the static demand curve, and so on. It’s neoclassical monopoly and competition theory on steroids, and hence side-steps the interesting objections raised by the Austrians and UCLA price theorists. In other words, the new IO focuses on more complex interactions while still eschewing comparative institutional analysis and modeling regulators as benevolent, albeit imperfectly informed, “social planners.”

As a student I found Tirole’s analysis extremely abstract, with little attention to how these theories might work in practice. Even Tirole’s later book with Jean-Jacques Laffont, A Theory of Incentives in Procurement and Regulation, is not very applied. But evidently Tirole has played a large personal and professional role in training and advising European regulatory bodies, so his work seems to have had a substantial impact on policy. (See, however, Sam Peltzman’s unflattering review of the 1989 Handbook of Industrial Organization, which complains that game-theoretic IO seems more about solving clever puzzles than understanding real markets.)

13 October 2014 at 2:31 pm 15 comments

SBA Loans Reduce Economic Growth

| Peter Klein |

That’s the conclusion of a new NBER paper by Andy Young, Matthew Higgins, Don Lacombe, and Briana Sell, “The Direct and Indirect Effects of Small Business Administration Lending on Growth: Evidence from U.S. County-Level Data” (ungated version here). “We find evidence that a county’s SBA lending per capita is associated with direct negative effects on its income growth. We also find evidence of indirect negative effects on the growth rates of neighboring counties. Overall, a 10% increase in SBA loans per capita is associated with a cumulative decrease in income growth rates of about 2%.” As the authors point out, SBA loans represent funds that also have alternative uses, and SBA-sponsored clients may not be the most worthy recipients (in terms of generating economic growth).

The results are largely robust and, perhaps more importantly, we never find any evidence of positive growth effects associated with SBA lending. Even when the estimated effects are statistically insignificant, the point estimates are always negative. Our findings suggest that SBA lending to small businesses comes at the cost of loans that would have otherwise been made to more profitable and/or innovative firms. Furthermore, SBA lending in a given county results in negative spillover effects on income growth in neighboring counties. Given the popularity of pro-small business policies, our findings should give reason for policymakers and their constituents to reevaluate their priors.

6 October 2014 at 11:37 am 1 comment

More Skepticism of Behavioral Social Science

| Peter Klein |

ship-of-fools-56457563Here at O&M we have been somewhat skeptical of the behavioral social science literature. Sure, in laboratory experiments, people often behave in ways inconsistent with “rational” behavior (as defined by neoclassical economics). Yes, people seem to use various rules-of-thumb in making complex decisions. And yet, it’s not clear that the huge literature on such biases and heuristics tells us much we don’t already know.

An interesting essay by Steven Poole argues the behavioralists’ claims are overstated, mainly by relying on a narrow, superficial notion of rationality as the benchmark case. Contemporary psychology suggests that people interpret the questions posed in laboratory experiments in a nuanced, contextual manner in which their seemingly “irrational” answers are actually reasonable.

There are many other good reasons to give ‘wrong’ answers to questions that are designed to reveal cognitive biases. The cognitive psychologist Jonathan St B T Evans was one of the first to propose a ‘dual-process’ picture of reasoning in the 1980s, but he resists talk of ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ as though they are entirely discrete, and argues against the automatic inference from bias to irrationality. . . . In general, Evans concludes that a ‘strictly logical’ answer will be less ‘adaptive to everyday needs’ for most people in many such cases of deductive reasoning. ‘A related finding,’ he continues, ‘is that, even though people may be told to assume the premises of arguments are true, they are reluctant to draw conclusions if they personally do not believe the premises. In real life, of course, it makes perfect sense to base your reasoning only on information that you believe to be true.’ In any contest between what ‘makes perfect sense’ in normal life and what is defined as ‘rational’ by economists or logicians, you might think it rational, according to a more generous meaning of that term, to prefer the former. Evans concludes: ‘It is far from clear that such biases should be regarded as evidence of irrationality.’

Poole also argues strongly against the liberal-paternalist “nudges” advocated by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, noting that “there is something troubling about the way in which [nudging] is able to marginalise political discussion.” Moreover, “nudge politics is at odds with public reason itself: its viability depends precisely on the public not overcoming their biases.” Poole concludes:

[T]here is less reason than many think to doubt humans’ ability to be reasonable. The dissenting critiques of the cognitive-bias literature argue that people are not, in fact, as individually irrational as the present cultural climate assumes. And proponents of debiasing argue that we can each become more rational with practice. But even if we each acted as irrationally as often as the most pessimistic picture implies, that would be no cause to flatten democratic deliberation into the weighted engineering of consumer choices, as nudge politics seeks to do. On the contrary, public reason is our best hope for survival. Even a reasoned argument to the effect that human rationality is fatally compromised is itself an exercise in rationality. Albeit rather a perverse, and – we might suppose – ultimately self-defeating one.

Worth a read. Even climate-change skepticism gets a nod, in a form consistent with some reflections here.

5 October 2014 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment

SMS Special Conference, “From Local Voids to Local Goods: Can Institutions Promote Competitive Advantage?”

| Peter Klein |

Please consider submitting a proposal to the upcoming SMS Special Conference in Santiago, Chile, 19-21 March 2015, on the theme “From Local Voids to Local Goods: Can Institutions Promote Competitive Advantage?” Here’s the description:

A recent stream of strategy research has examined how institutional voids pose fundamental challenges for industrial development in emerging markets, which bring detrimental effects to the competitiveness of local firms. Yet, in many countries, policymakers, to various degrees and levels, have adopted a rather positive agenda, to try and foster local firms through the provision of public resources, such as investments in infrastructure, specialized industrial policies, as well as knowledge-generation systems. Concomitantly, firms themselves have pursued collective synergies that individual firms alone would be able to attain. In sum, strategies embedded in the local environment may promote rather than limit competitive advantage. To advance this discussion, we are gathering a group of established scholars and practitioners in Santiago, one of the most modern Latin American cities. Chile is also well known for its distinctive institutional reforms, which promote a thriving business climate. The Conference will thus offer a unique opportunity to discuss how firms and institutions interact to spur entrepreneurship and development.

I am chairing the track on “Institutions and Local Entrepreneurship,” and looking for papers dealing broadly with the relationships among legal, political, and social institutions, entrepreneurship (broadly defined), public policy, and economic performance. I would love to see submissions from O&Mers. The submission deadline (extended abstract, not full paper) is 15 October 2014, just around the corner. Let me know if you have any questions.

3 October 2014 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

Academics and Social Media

| Peter Klein |

At this week’s Strategic Management Conference in Madrid I participated in an interesting session on Media Innovations, along with Will Mitchell and Wiley’s Caroline McCarley. My remarks focused on academics and their use of social media. How (if at all) can professors use blogs, videos, wikis, and other social media products to disseminate their research, to improve their teaching, and even to discover new ideas? Are social media and “serious” activities like research and class preparation substitutes or complements? Should untenured faculty avoid such distractions?

I began my remarks — where else? — with Kim Kardashian. Biologist Neil Hall made a bit of a splash a few months back by introducing the Kardashian Index, basically the ratio of an academic researcher’s Twitter followers to citations in peer-reviewed journals. (For a rough approximation, just divide Twitter followers by Google Scholar cites.) Someone with a very high K-index, the story goes, has a large popular following, but hasn’t made any important scientific contributions — in other words, like Kim, famous for being famous.

Science published a rejoinder suggesting that the K-index gets it wrong by implying, incorrectly, that popular and scholarly influence are inversely related. Indeed, among the top 20 natural scientists, by Twitter followers, are some scientific lightweights like Neil deGrasse Tyson (2.4 million Twitter followers and 151 citations), but also serious thinkers like Tim Berners-Lee (179,000 followers and 51,204 cites) and Steven Pinker (142,000 and 49,933). I haven’t run the numbers for economists and management scholars but I think you’ll find the same general pattern. E.g., among the biggies on the LDRLB Top Professors on Twitter list you find a mix of practitioner-oriented writers with modest academic influence (Bill George, Richard Florida, Stew Friedman, Gary Hamel) and scholars with huge citation counts (Mike Porter, Clay Christensen, Adam Grant).

I went on to emphasize (as usual) that, for the most part, these issues are nothing new. Scholars and thinkers throughout history have used whatever media are available to disseminate their ideas to wider audiences. In the 17th-19th centuries there were pamphlets, handbills, newspapers, and lecture halls; in the 20th century radio, magazines, TV, and other outlets. Classical economists like John Stuart Mill published anti-slavery tracts; the Verein für Socialpolitik took positions on important social issues of the day; the American Economic Association was founded to combat lassiez-faire; C. S. Lewis gave his famous wartime radio lectures; Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman dueled in the pages of Newsweek, and Friedman took to the airwaves for the PBS series “Free to Choose.” So academic bloggers, Tweeters, Facebookers, YouTubers, LinkedInners, and Instagrammers are following in a grand tradition. Of course, what’s new today is the scale; without a contract for a newspaper column or TV show, any of us can set up shop, and have the potential to reach a very wide audience. (more…)

26 September 2014 at 10:26 am 5 comments

SMS Teaching Workshop: Impact of New Technologies on Teaching and Higher Education

| Peter Klein |

Along with Gonçalo Pacheco de Almeida I am chairing the Competitive Strategy Interest Group Teaching Workshop at the upcoming Strategic Management Society conference in Madrid. The workshop is Saturday, 20 September 2014, 1:00-4:00pm at the main conference venue, the NH Eurobuilding, Paris Room. Our theme is “The Impact of New Technologies on Teaching and Higher Education” and we have an all-star lineup featuring Bharat Anand (Harvard), Peter Zemsky (INSEAD), Michael Leiblein (Ohio State), Michael Lenox (University of Virginia), Frank Rothaermel (Georgia Tech), Vivek Goel (Chief Academic Strategist at Coursera), and Andrea Martin (President of IBM Academy of Technology).

Background: The higher-education industry is abuzz with talk about MOOCs, distance learning, computer-based instruction, and other pedagogical innovations. Many of you are already using online exercises and assessments, simulations, and other activities in the classroom. How are these innovations best incorporated into the business curriculum, at the BBA, MBA, EMBA, and PhD levels? What can business scholars, say about the impact of these technologies on higher education more generally? Are they sustaining or disruptive innovations, and what do they imply for the structure of the business school, and the university itself?

The plan for this session is to discuss how leading companies and business schools are (a) driving innovation in the Higher Education teaching space, (b) thinking about the business model of virtual education (MOOCs, social learning, etc.), and (c) testing some of the assumptions behind globalization in the education industry.

The full schedule is below the fold. Additional information about the workshop, and the SMS itself, is available at the conference website.

If you’re coming to SMS this year, please plan to join us for the workshop. Pre-registration is encouraged but not required. If you’re planning to attend, please let us know by sending an email to csig.teaching2014@gmail.com. Feel free to email Gonçalo or myself at the same address with questions or comments. (more…)

2 September 2014 at 4:10 pm Leave a comment

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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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).
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