Hart on Incomplete Contracts

29 April 2013 at 9:58 am Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

Transaction cost economics, the property-rights approach to the firm, and the judgment-based view all assume that contracting parties cannot sign complete, contingent contracts, in which case firm boundaries would be arbitrary and unimportant. TCE tends to attribute incompleteness to bounded rationality, while the judgment-based view appeals to Knightian uncertainty and subjectivism to describe markets for judgment are incomplete. The property-rights approach of Grossman, Hart, and Moore did not have an explicit theory of incompleteness, which critics such as Maskin and Tirole saw as a major weakness.

Oliver Hart has written a series of recent papers on “reference points” as a new explanation for incompleteness. The newest, released today as an NBER working paper (with Maija Halonen-Akatwijuka), is the most explicit. It argues that parties deliberately leave gaps in contracts because explicit clauses can make it more difficult for parties to parties to renegotiate after the fact. Check it out and see what you think.

More is Less: Why Parties May Deliberately Write Incomplete Contracts
Maija Halonen-Akatwijuka, Oliver D. Hart
NBER Working Paper No. 19001, April 2013

Why are contracts incomplete? Transaction costs and bounded rationality cannot be a total explanation since states of the world are often describable, foreseeable, and yet are not mentioned in a contract. Asymmetric information theories also have limitations. We offer an explanation based on “contracts as reference points”. Including a contingency of the form, “The buyer will require a good in event E”, has a benefit and a cost. The benefit is that if E occurs there is less to argue about; the cost is that the additional reference point provided by the outcome in E can hinder (re)negotiation in states outside E. We show that if parties agree about a reasonable division of surplus, an incomplete contract can be strictly superior to a contingent contract.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Recommended Reading, Theory of the Firm.

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