Archive for May, 2014

Business Cycles and the Structure of Production

| Peter Klein |

A new paper from former guest blogger Peter Lewin:

A Financial Framework for Macroeconomic Cycles: The Structure of Production is Relevant

Peter Lewin
University of Texas at Dallas – School of Management – Department of Finance & Managerial Economics

Nicolas Cachanosky
Metropolitan State University of Denver

A comprehensive understanding business-cycles needs to account not only for the allocation of resources over time, but also for resource allocation across industries at any point in time. Intertemporal disequilibrium has been a common theme of many theories of the business-cycle. But to properly understand how these “time-distortions” take place and how the price-mechanisms that drive them work, a clear and well-defined conceptualization of the “average length” of the structure of production, is required. The insights provided by Macaulay’s duration and Hicks’s Average Period do this. We show that financial duration and related concepts have a direct connection to macroeconomic stability. By doing this we point to important implications for macroeconomic policy. We claim not only that a low interest rate contributes to the creation of asset bubbles, we show also the market mechanism through which the real sector is affected. We argue that to accept that duration matters for resource allocation is to accept the core of the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle (ABCT) and, therefore, that to reject the ABCT core thesis suggests also rejecting the importance of duration for resource allocation.

Management and entrepreneurship scholars new to business-cycle theory might find this, this, and this to be useful background reading.

30 May 2014 at 9:06 am 2 comments

The Paradox of the New Economic History

| Peter Klein |

MIT’s Peter Temin on the “paradox of the New Economic History,” from his keynote speech to the BETA-Workshop in Historical Economics (published as an NBER working paper):

New economic historians have turned their back on traditional historians and sought their place among economists. This has provided good jobs for many scholars, but the acceptance by economists is still incomplete. We therefore have two challenges ahead of ourselves. The first is to argue that economic development can only be fully understood if we understand the divergent histories of high-wage and low-wage economies. And the other big challenge is to translate our economic findings into historical lessons that historians will want to read. These challenges come from our place between economics and history, and both are important for the future of the New Economic History.

His broader claim is that the disciplines of economic history and economic development should be more closely integrated. “Both subfields study economic development; the difference is that economic history focuses on high-wage countries while economic development focuses on low-wage economies.”

21 May 2014 at 11:55 am Leave a comment

The Piketty Code

| Dick Langlois |

I was trying to avoid jumping into the fray about Capital in the Twenty-First Century so as not to participate in the mania, as if throwing one more tiny ember into a wildfire would cause measurable additional damage. But I couldn’t resist after seeing an article entitled “How Thomas Piketty Explains American Sports.” Written by someone called Kevin Lincoln in a left-wing mag called Pacific Standard, the article discusses the NBA’s proposal to raise the minimum roster age from 19 to 20, thus reducing the number of one-and-done college players and depriving John Calipari of his livelihood. (Did I forget to mention that UConn won both men’s and women’s national championships this year?) Lincoln correctly points out that such a change is in the interest not only of the D-1 colleges, who get to keep their stars longer, but also of the NBA, since it offloads more player development to the colleges. Sounds perfectly reasonable – exactly the kind of analysis you would expect from, say, a free-market public-choice economist. What on earth does this have to do with Piketty?

The concept of “over-accumulation” was coined by economist David Hershey, and with the ascent of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century into bestsellerdom, it’s something that anyone with even a passing interest in economics is probably familiar with. In our current economy, actors who have gathered large amounts of capital tend to invest it in the creation of further capital for themselves rather than funneling it back into production. In turn, the economy stagnates, with the world’s financial resources concentrating in the hands of the rich with no money left over to raise wages for the working class.

Yes, this scheme will probably raise the wealth (a little) of NBA owners. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the accumulation of capital. For both owners and players, the NBA is all about people getting wealthy from entrepreneurial insight and scarce valuable skills — exactly contrary to Piketty’s predictions.

The author is obviously economically illiterate — how exactly can people “create further capital for themselves” without somehow “funneling it back into production”? Yet the fact that someone smart enough to write a free-lance article would connect the NBA to Piketty speaks, it seems to me, to what the Piketty phenomenon is all about. In my view, we should not be comparing Piketty with Marx or Keynes. We should be comparing him with Dan Brown. Like the Da Vinci Code, Capital is an otherwise unremarkable book that managed to put together a volatile mix of elements. Both books captured some kind of zeitgeist, of course, but they did so in a remarkably precise way. They rely on similar elements: a theory of how the world works that doesn’t stand up to minimal scrutiny but is easy to understand, seems to explain the mysterious and ineffable, and, most importantly, confirms the gut prejudices of its readers. Capital is not as much a conspiracy theory as the Da Vinci Code; it’s a nineteenth-century story about aggregate income shares. But it is also an empty-enough vessel into which readers (especially those who haven’t actually read it) can pour their own conspiracy theories. The NBA is the Opus Dei of capitalist sports.

While we’re on the subject, I also want to mention that, to my mild surprise, the best review of Piketty I have run across is by Larry Summers. He gathers together all the technical criticisms in many other reviews and then adds a few of his own. While he pats Piketty on the back for his wonderful interest in inequality, he leaves the theoretical claims in a tattered pile on the floor.

17 May 2014 at 1:10 pm 4 comments

Friday Fun: The Market Value of Research Topics

[A guest post from Peter St. Onge, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Feng Chia University in Taiwan.]

Is academia the epitome of mankind’s quest for knowledge? Is it an adjunct to the productive forces that drive us ever-closer to a utopia of plenty? Or is it a self-licking ice cream cone? Here are a few data points.

For each keyword or phrase-in-quotes, the first column measures google searches (average ttm, in thousands, reported 5/15/14 on Google Adwords Keyword Planner). The second column measures academic papers on Google scholar between 2012-2013 (as of 5/15/14). The third column measures the ratio of academic papers divided by monthly searches. And the fourth column gives Google Adwords’ “suggested bid” — this suggests what an advertiser might offer for a “click” when somebody enters the search term or phrase, so is roughly the market value of a visitor searching for that term.

These measures are roughly intended to capture popular interest (the quest for knowledge) and market value (adjunct to production) compared to academic interest.

First, some general business terms, with “gender identity” thrown in for fun, ranked by papers-to-search ratios:

Google Scholar Google monthly searches (k) Papers 12-13 (k) Papers/ searches Suggested Bid
management 40.5 785 19.4 $5.25
“gender identity” 8.1 146 18.0 $1.99
“Corporate Strategy” 1.9 20.9 11.0 $10.83
accounting 40.5 343 8.5 $7.66
marketing 60.5 342 5.7 $6.45
entrepreneurship 33.1 80.1 2.4 $4.58
finance 823.0 301 0.4 $8.22


The highest ratio of academic vs popular interest? Management. Beating even “gender identity.” And the lowest? Finance, followed by entrepreneurship. The people demand more finance and entrepreneurship papers. Perhaps because they want to learn how to invest and start businesses, but this is conjecture.

What else jumps out here is the overwhelming interest among the public in finance. Indeed, there are more than 4 times more searches for the word finance than all the other terms together. “Finance” is 20 times more popular than accounting or management, and 15 times more than marketing. Perhaps business schools are misallocating their resources unless their departments aren’t at least 80% finance? (more…)

16 May 2014 at 2:16 pm Leave a comment

The New Empirical Economics of Management

| Peter Klein |

That’s the title of a new review paper by Nicholas Bloom, Renata Lemos, Raffaella Sadun, Daniela Scur, and John Van Reenen, summarizing the recent large-sample empirical literature on management practices using the World Management Survey (modeled on the older World Values Survey). Here’s the NBER version and here’s an ungated version from the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance.

This literature has been rightly criticized for its somewhat coarse, survey-based measures of management practices, but its measures are probably the most precise that can be reliably extracted from a large sample of firms across many countries. In that sense it is on par with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, the Economic Freedom Index, and other databases that attempt to capture subtle and ultimately subjective characteristics across a broad sample.

Here’s the abstract of the Bloom et al. paper:

Over the last decade the World Management Survey (WMS) has collected firm-level management practices data across multiple sectors and countries. We developed the survey to try to explain the large and persistent TFP differences across firms and countries. This review paper discusses what has been learned empirically and theoretically from the WMS and other recent work on management practices. Our preliminary results suggest that about a quarter of cross-country and within-country TFP gaps can be accounted for by management practices. Management seems to matter both qualitatively and quantitatively. Competition, governance, human capital and informational frictions help account for the variation in management.

It provides a nice overview for those new to this literature. An earlier review paper by Bloom, Genakos, Sadun, and Van Reenen, “Management Practices Across Firms and Countries,” appeared in the Academy of Management Perspectives in 2011, along with some critical comments by David Waldman, Mary Sully de Luque, and Danni Wang.

12 May 2014 at 1:46 pm 2 comments

Is Human Capital Theory Compatible with the Strategy Literature?

[Another Becker-themed guest post, this one from former guest blogger Russ Coff, a leader in the emerging field of Strategic Human Capital.]

| Russ Coff |

Human capital theory (HCT) has brought a lot to the strategy literature. It has also held it back as scholars import logic that is inconsistent with core assumptions of the literature.

Before I launch into my heretical rant, let me acknowledge, as others have said so eloquently, Gary Becker was a truly innovative thinker. The most unique part was that, while he was firmly grounded in economic logic, he did not hesitate to venture into new terrain. Though he is most known for his work in HCT, his thoughtful explorations of marriage, discrimination, crime, and many other topics demonstrate the breadth and depth of his intellect.

However, strategy represents new terrain that is often inconsistent with the logic of HCT. In this sense, I think Becker would have relished the opportunity to examine this context as a new problem. Human capital challenges the strategy literature in the most fundamental ways possible – if we go beyond a cursory integration with Becker’s world. Here are some examples:

How much does firm-specific human capital (FSHC) matter? Drawing on HCT, scholars often assume firm specificity is important since it hinders mobility and allows the firm to capture rent. However, recent work suggests that this effect may be overstated. It requires strong information about human capital as opposed to the coarse signals that employers often rely upon. Thus, a worker moving from a successful firm may have ample opportunities as the firm’s success serves as a signal of the worker’s capabilities – FSHC investments are ignored. Even with strong information, individuals who invest in FSHC may be in demand by firms seeking employees who are willing and able to make such investments. When we consider such market imperfections (at the core of strategy theory), some of the classical HCT logic breaks down.

General human capital as a source of competitive advantage? Recent work in economics (Lazear’s skill-weights model) and the literature on stars focuses on workers who have skills that are valuable across firms. Both literatures point out how valuable and rare such skills can be (at very high levels). The scarcity and imperfect markets suggest that general human capital can be a source of advantage. Such people may be much more scarce and much less mobile than is assumed in classical HCT. Practitioners focus extensively on this type of knowledge. Can it lead to an advantage?

What is competitive advantage? From this, we might ask some more fundamental questions about competitive advantage, firms, and ownership. Most scholars implicitly adopt an agency theoretic view where shareholders are the only residual claimant and competitive advantage is therefore rent that flows to shareholders. Any value that flows to employees is considered not to have been captured by the firm. Joe Mahoney points out that shareholders would be the sole residual claimants if all factors are traded in perfectly competitive markets (e.g., wage = MRP). For this to be true, firms would have to be homogeneous and human capital would need to be a commodity. As such, this logic assumes away the possibility of competitive advantage altogether. If firms are heterogeneous and there are factor market failures, shareholders would not generally be sole residual claimants. What, then, is competitive advantage? (more…)

7 May 2014 at 5:37 pm 3 comments

A Note on “Human Capital”

| Peter Klein |

Like Peter Lewin, Walter Block, Mario Rizzo, and Peter Boettke, I greatly admire the late Gary Becker, a pioneer in many areas of economics and sociology, a strong proponent of economic and personal freedom, and by all accounts a terrific teacher, mentor, and colleague. But I confess that I have always had qualms about the concept of “human capital,” along with the analogous constructs of social capital, knowledge capital, reputation capital, and so on. These are metaphors for capital in the narrow sense, and I worry that the widespread use of “capital” to denote anything valuable and long-lived obscures important issues about actual, physical capital that can be divided up, measured, priced, and exchanged. Witness the confusion over “capital” as Thomas Piketty uses the term. Here is something I wrote before:

[O]ne of my pet peeves [is] the expansive use of “capital” to describe any ill-defined substance that accumulates and has value. Hence knowledge, experience, and skills become “human capital” or “knowledge capital”; relationships become “social capital”; brand names become “reputation capital”; and so on. I fear this terminology obfuscates more than it clarifies.

I don’t mind using these terms in a loose, colloquial sense: By going to school I’m investing in human capital or diversifying my stock of human capital; if this gets me a high-paying job I’m earning a good return on my human capital; as I get old I forget new things, so my human capital is depreciating rapidly; and so on.

But we shouldn’t take these metaphors too literally. In economic theory capital refers either to financial capital or to a stock of heterogeneous alienable assets, goods that can be exchanged in markets and analyzed using price theory. Their rental prices are determined by marginal revenue products and their purchase prices are given by the present discounted value of these future rents. Knowledge is not, strictly speaking, capital, because it is not traded in markets does not have a rental or purchase price. What markets trade and price is labor services, and it is impossible to decompose the payments to labor (wages) into separate “effort” and “rental return on human capital” components. Some labor services command a higher market price than others because they have a higher marginal revenue product. Some of this wage premium may be due to intelligence or experience, some due to complementarities with other human or nonhuman assets, some due to hard work, and so on. But these are all determinants of the MRP, and hence the wage, not different kinds of factor returns.

Moreover, the entrepreneur needs cardinal numbers to compute the value of his capital stock, to know if it is increasing or decreasing in value, and so on. I can’t measure my stock of human capital, I don’t know for sure if it is increasing or decreasing over time, I can’t calculate the ROI of a specific human-capital investment, etc., because there are no prices and no measurable units. Knowledge may be “like capital,” in the sense that it lasts, that you can add to it, that you benefit from it, etc., but it isn’t literally a capital good like a machine or a refrigerator.

If we think going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings, why don’t we just say, “going to school is valuable and increases lifetime earnings,” rather than, “there is a positive return on investments in human capital”? Is there a good reason to prefer the latter, besides scientism?

6 May 2014 at 9:18 am 8 comments

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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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