Archive for February, 2014

Property Rights Economics — Mark I and Mark II

| Nicolai Foss |

In modern standard economics, property rights as an analytical category are mainly associated with the work of Oliver Hart, largely because of his important work, with Sanford Grossman, John Moore and others, on asset ownership in the context of the boundaries of the firm (the pioneering paper is here).  Many modern (younger) economists don’t seem to know of the older property rights tradition, associated with Coase, Alchian, Demsetz, Cheung, Barzel, Furubotn, Umbeck, Alston, Libecap, Eggertson et al.  Given the prevalent Whig interpretation of the evolution of economic theory, one may be led to the belief that the modern approach superseded or incorporated everything that was sound in the older, verbal approach, while advancing property rights thinking in rigorous game-theoretical terms.

With a frequent co-author, I have penned a paper, “Coasian and Modern Property Rights Economics: A Case of Kuhnian Lost Content,” that argues that such a view is false. In fact, we argue  that there has been something akin to a Kuhnian “loss of content” (Kuhn, 1996)  in the move from Mark I to Mark II property rights economics. What we call “property rights economics Mark II” is a more narrow approach in terms of the phenomena that are investigated, namely why it matters who owns the asset(s) in a relation that spans at least two stage of production in a value chain. In contrast, “property rights economics Mark I” was taken up with the complex and contingent nature of real ownership arrangements, and pointed to the many margins on which individual can exercise capture of rights, how they seek to protect their rights, the resources consumed in this process, and the role of institutions in facilitating and constraining such processes. This institutional research program is considerably richer than the one implied by Mark II property rights economics.

10 February 2014 at 9:46 am 1 comment

Relational Contracts and the Decline of General Motors

| Nicolai Foss |

The shifting fortunes in the international automobile industry over the last four decades have, for obvious reasons, been endlessly commented upon.  Usually, the two leading protagonists in the various accounts of the dynamics of the industry are General Motors and Toyota, the former because of its conspicuous decline (GM’s share of the US market dropped from about 60 to about 20% over a 30 years period), the latter because it has been steadily growing and is now the world’s largest automaker.

Discussions of the relative performance of these two industrial giants sometimes focus on vacuous categories like “culture” and “capabilities.” More detailed accounts stress the short-termism of General Motor’s investment decisions, its arms-length supplier relations, and its obsession with narrowly defined, easily-measurable jobs. Toyota’s relative success is often explained in terms of the Toyota Management Model with its emphasis on broadly defined jobs, intensive lateral and vertical information flows, and emphasis on problem-solving on the shop floor.  However, it is not immediately clear that GM did something very badly that Toyota did very well. The liabilities that led to the decline of GM were apparently were different from the assets that brought Toyota success.

In a new NBER paper, “Management Practices, Relational Contracts, and the Decline of General Motors“, Susan Helper and Rebecca Henderson argue, however, that GM and Toyota are directly comparable in terms of the relational contracts existing inside their corporate hieararchies and across the boundaries of these two companies, and that their differential performance is explainable in terms of the differences between the contracts. Relying on recent contract theory research on relational contracts (rather than the older, but neglected work of Harvey Leibenstein), Helper and Henderson reject a number of conventional explanations (e.g., that GM’s investment policy was oriented towards the short term), and convincingly argue that GM had difficulties understanding the nature and important role of relational contracts behind Toyota’s success and therefores truggled to implement similar relational contracts. They point to a number of reasons why relational contracts may be difficult to build, centering on problems of creating credible commitments and communicating clearly and suggest that these problems were rampant in GM.  In all, a very nice read that can be used in a number of different classes (org theory, economics of the firm, strategic management). Highly recommended! 

UPDATE: My colleague Henrik Lando draws my attention to Ben-Shahar and White’s 2005 paper on manufacturing contracts in the auto industry which tells a story that is consistent with the Helper and Henderson story. Here.

8 February 2014 at 2:29 pm 1 comment

What Are “Transaction Costs” Anyway?

| 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?

6 February 2014 at 12:28 pm 20 comments

Creativity and Age

old-lady| 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?

4 February 2014 at 11:47 am Leave a comment

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Our Recent Books

Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Peter G. Klein and Micheal E. Sykuta, eds., The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (Edward Elgar, 2010).
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).
Nicolai J. Foss, Strategy, Economic Organization, and the Knowledge Economy: The Coordination of Firms and Resources (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Raghu Garud, Arun Kumaraswamy, and Richard N. Langlois, eds., Managing in the Modular Age: Architectures, Networks and Organizations (Blackwell, 2003).
Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, eds., Entrepreneurship and the Firm: Austrian Perspectives on Economic Organization (Elgar, 2002).
Nicolai J. Foss and Volker Mahnke, eds., Competence, Governance, and Entrepreneurship: Advances in Economic Strategy Research (Oxford, 2000).
Nicolai J. Foss and Paul L. Robertson, eds., Resources, Technology, and Strategy: Explorations in the Resource-based Perspective (Routledge, 2000).