An Empirical Test of Williamson’s Adaptation Theory

13 February 2009 at 11:51 am 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

We’ve noted before, following Bob Gibbons, how Williamson’s transaction-cost approach can be called an adaptation theory of the firm. Vertical integration, in this context, is seen as an efficient means of adjusting a production process to unanticipated changes in market conditions, regulation, or technology.

Most of the empirical TCE literature focuses on the equilibrium rent-seeking version of the story, however (perhaps more influenced by Klein, Crawford, and Alchian’s interpretation). Vertical integration is viewed as an efficient means of mitigating holdup in the presence of asset specificity — and, in equilibrium, holdups don’t occur, so there is nothing to mitigate. Hence the typical TCE empirical paper which compares observed organizational forms to observed transactional characteristics (e.g., the degree of asset specificity). Newer studies attempt to test the relationship between efficient alignment, in the sense above, and long-term performance or survival, but few study the process of adaptation itself. (Exceptions include Mayer and Argyres, 2004 and Argyres and Mayer, 2007.)

Arnaud Costinot, Lindsay Oldenski, and James Rauch have written what I think is the first large-N empirical paper on the adaptation theory, “Adaptation and the Boundary of Multinational Firms.”They construct an occupation-level measure of “routineness” — whether a job involves mainly routine tasks or more creative, problem-solving activities — and show that routineness and vertical integration are negatively correlated. An interesting operationalization of the theory. Abstract:

What determines the boundary of multinational firms? According to Williamson (1975), a potential rationale for vertical integration is to facilitate adaptation in a world where uncertainty is resolved over time. This paper offers the first empirical analysis of the impact of adaptation on the boundary of multinational firms. To do so, we first develop a ranking of sectors in terms of their “routineness” by merging two sets of data: (i) ratings of occupations by their intensities in “problem solving” from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network; and (ii) U.S. employment shares of occupations by sectors from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics. Using U.S. Census trade data, we then demonstrate that, in line with adaptation theories of the firm, the share of intrafirm trade tends to be higher in less routine sectors. This result is robust to inclusion of other variables known to influence the U.S. intrafirm import share such as capital intensity, R&D intensity, relationship specificity, intermediation and productivity dispersion. Our most conservative estimate suggests that a one standard deviation decrease in average routineness raises the share of intrafirm imports by 0.26 standard deviations, or an additional 7% of import value that is intrafirm.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, New Institutional Economics, Strategic Management, Theory of the Firm.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Benjamin W. Blunck  |  21 February 2009 at 6:22 am

    Here’s a quick comment/question based on the concept of organizational response to high uncertainty. How does this paper/theory compare to resource dependency theory and can empirical tests easily differentiate between them?

    (I have not read the paper)

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  21 February 2009 at 10:39 am

    That’s a good question. I don’t really know resource-dependency theory well enough to answer. Hopefully somebody out there can help.

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