Arrunada Seminar: Stephen Hansen – Public Institutions and Endogenous Information in Contracting
| Stephen Hansen |
Public Institutions and Endogenous Information in Contracting
Benito Arruñada’s Institutional Foundations of Impersonal Exchange: Theory and Policy of Contractual Registries is an impressive and erudite study of the relationship between legal institutions and impersonal exchange. While clearly valuable for better understanding policies regarding formalization, in my mind it also introduces ideas that are relevant for contract theory more generally and yet hardly treated in the literature.
Since the 1970’s economic theorists have understood that information asymmetries between parties who write contracts are a key source of inefficiencies in exchange. Since then, a vast literature has developed exploring this idea from many different angles. Nevertheless, two key features usually appear. First, the set of parties who write contracts all observe each other, know they are contracting with each other, and (with some exceptions) observe the terms of the contracts agreed. Second, the information asymmetries are assumed to be a fixed, exogenous feature of relationships.
Benito’s book convincingly shows that both of these limit our understanding of trading frictions in the real world. A key insight is that, in addition to his “type” or “action” (to use the language of contract theory), the formal contracts that an economic agent has written with others may be unobservable. After reading the book, it became clear to me that this dimension of non-observability is just as important for generating market failure as others. The second, and intimately related, insight is that the degree of non-observability of contractual rights depends on public institutions, in particular registration systems. Whereas it is unclear how a public body would help contracting parties discover — to take a standard example — each other’s preferences over the good they are proposing to trade, Benito shows that they can affect the amount of information they have about each other’s formal legal rights. And, in line with what one would expect, when institutions can reduce this information asymmetry, the likelihood of efficient trades increases.
Putting these two ideas together provides an original and to me very exciting view on the value of legal systems. Economists often discuss “good” legal systems as those which enforce written agreements transparently at low cost. After reading Benito’s book, I recognized that legal systems also act to endogenously affect the amount of information that parties have available to reach those agreements in the first place. This deserves to be an influential idea in future discussions of law, economics, and contract theory.
Stephen Hansen. Assistant Professor. Economics Department. Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Barcelona, Spain