Posts filed under ‘Recommended Reading’

Labor Market Responses to Recessions

| Lasse Lien |

If you are interested in how firms respond to recessions, you might like this blog post by Matt Palmquist for the Strategy+business blog, or this one for the LSE business review. I know I liked both of them. But O&M was first, evidence here.

12 April 2016 at 6:18 am 2 comments

Measuring Tacit Knowledge

subject-knowledge-brain| Peter Klein |

The concept of tacit knowledge — knowledge that is difficult or impossible to parameterize, or to express in words or numbers — is central to organization theory, as well as philosophy (Polanyi) and social theory more generally (Hayek). Most of the research literature on tacit knowledge is conceptual and theoretical, such as Hayek’s famous “Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) or more recent pieces like Jensen and Meckling’s “Specific and General Knowledge, and Organizational Structure” (1992). Empirical studies of tacit knowledge are rare, which is not surprising given the idiosyncratic, personal, subjective, and often ephemeral nature of such knowledge.

An interesting new NBER paper by David Chan estimates the effects of tacit knowledge using matched pairs of physician trainees with similar levels of explicit knowledge but different levels of experience and hence accumulated know-how. The hospital setting allows for some clever tricks, e.g., exogenous sorting into occupational roles by experience, rather than ability. Measuring outcomes via spending is problematic to me, though standard in the medical economics and management literatures. Check it out:

Uncertainty, Tacit Knowledge, and Practice Variation: Evidence from Physicians in Training
David C. Chan, Jr
NBER Working Paper No. 21855, January 2016

Studying physicians in training, I investigate how uncertainty and tacit knowledge may give rise to significant practice variation. Consistent with tacit knowledge accruing only with experience, and empirically exploiting a discontinuity in the formation of teams, experience relative to a peer substantially increases the size of variation attributable to the physician trainees. Among the same physician trainees, convergence occurs for patients on services driven by specialists, where there is arguably more explicit knowledge, but not on the general medicine service. This difference is unexplained by formally coded patient information. In contrast, rich physician characteristics correlated with preferences and ability, and quasi-random assignments to high- or low-spending supervising physicians explain little if any variation.

2 February 2016 at 5:21 pm 2 comments

Kealey and Ricketts on Science as a Contribution Good

| Peter Klein |

Two of my favorite writers on the economic organization of science, Terence Kealey and Martin Ricketts, have produced a recent paper on science as a “contribution good.” A contribution good is like a club good in that it is non-rivalrous but at least partly excludable. Here, the excludability is soft and tacit, resulting not from fixed barriers like membership fees, but from the inherent cognitive difficulty in processing the information. To join the club, one must be able to understand the science. And, as with Mancur Olson’s famous model, consumption is tied to contribution — to make full use of the science, the user must first master the underlying material, which typically involves becoming a scientist, and hence contributing to the science itself.

Kealey and Ricketts provide a formal model of contribution goods and describe some conditions favoring their production. In their approach, the key issue isn’t free-riding, but critical mass (what they call the “visible college,” as distinguished from additional contributions from the “invisible college”).

The paper is in the July 2014 issue of Research Policy and appears to be open-access, at least for the moment.

Modelling science as a contribution good
Terence Kealey, Martin Ricketts

The non-rivalness of scientific knowledge has traditionally underpinned its status as a public good. In contrast we model science as a contribution game in which spillovers differentially benefit contributors over non-contributors. This turns the game of science from a prisoner’s dilemma into a game of ‘pure coordination’, and from a ‘public good’ into a ‘contribution good’. It redirects attention from the ‘free riding’ problem to the ‘critical mass’ problem. The ‘contribution good’ specification suggests several areas for further research in the new economics of science and provides a modified analytical framework for approaching public policy.

9 April 2015 at 9:23 am 2 comments

A Good Reason to Study Corporate Culture

| Peter Klein |

Corporate culture is hard to define and measure (Kreps’s game-theoretic version is probably the one most familiar to economists), but may play a role in explaining variation in firm performance. Of course, one should not invoke “culture” as an explanation for outcomes without specifying some microfoundations. And culture may be as much the result of firm performance as the cause.

But organizations can also serve as a sort of laboratory for understanding the links between informal institutions like culture and more formal institutions such as written rules, policies, and procedures in society at large, a very important issue for economic history, growth, public policy, etc. So say Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales in this short note:

Unlike large societies, however, corporations give hopes to identify the link between culture and formal institutions. . . . First, the creation of a firm is a moment where the founder has the power to set values on a blank slate. Identification of this moment is easier (it is recorded, it is recent) than identifying when and who sets the values of a large community (e.g. a country). Second, culture is easier to change in a corporation. Through hiring and firing corporations can select values by selecting people, avoiding the more difficult strategy of changing their minds. And can punish them if they do not adapt (e.g. by deferring promotion). In large societies only the difficult strategy is available, and slow adaptation is hard to punish, unless slow-adapters are outlawed, which makes culture and law undistinguishable. Third, it is easier to establish the link with performance. Performance is continuously recorded, for the corporation as a whole and often for its segments and divisions in order to implement compensation schemes. Hence, one can study the role of shared norms and beliefs while controlling for the power of economic incentives. Finally, because firms break up and merge much more often than countries, an observer can collect exposure of a firm to a new culture much more often than one can for larger societies.

Here is the link (NBER gated, CEPR, may be ungated for some users).

2 March 2015 at 11:58 am 1 comment

“Robert Bork’s Forgotten Role in the Transaction Cost Revolution”

| Peter Klein |

E1725-27Thanks to Danny Sokol for passing on this paper by Alan Meese.

Robert Bork’s Forgotten Role in the Transaction Cost Revolution

Alan J. Meese
Antitrust Law Journal 79, no. 3 (2014)

This essay, prepared for a conference examining Robert Bork’s antitrust contributions, examines Bork’s hitherto unknown role in the transaction cost economics (“TCE”) revolution. The essay recounts how, in 1966, Bork helped rediscover Coase’s 1937 article, The Nature of the Firm and employed Coase’s reasoning to explain how various forms of partial integration could reduce transaction costs. As the essay shows, Bork described how exclusive territories, customer restrictions and horizontal minimum price fixing that accompanied otherwise valid integration were voluntary efforts to overcome the costs of relying upon unfettered markets to conduct economic activity. To be sure, Bork did not develop a complete account of TCE capable of informing a full-fledged research program. Nonetheless, Bork did articulate and apply various tools of TCE, tools that reflected departures from the applied price theory tradition of industrial organization.

The essay also offers some brief speculation regarding why scholars have not recognized Bork’s early contributions to TCE. For one thing, Bork did not purport to offer a new economic paradigm. Instead, Bork repeatedly characterized his work as an application of basic price theory, the very economic paradigm that TCE overthrew with respect to the interpretation of non-standard contracts. Moreover, Bork did not persist in his critique of price theory’s once-dominant account of non-standard contracts. After reiterating his views in 1968, for instance, he did not revisit the economics of non-standard agreements for nearly a decade. Finally, when Bork did return to the topic, he deemphasized TCE-based arguments and focused more on the claim that such agreements could not add to the market power already possessed by manufacturers and thus could not produce economic harm. In short, Bork’s failure to reiterate his TCE-based interpretation of non-standard agreements seems partly responsible for the lack of recognition his early contributions have received.

On Bork see also Jack High’s useful 1984 paper, “Bork’s Paradox: Static vs. Dynamic Efficiency in Antitrust Analysis.”

6 February 2015 at 9:20 am Leave a comment

More on Strategy and Game Theory

| Peter Klein |

downloadRecent posts on strategy and game theory (here and here) generated quite a lot of discussion here and on social media. Avinash Dixit offers more grist for the mill in his December 2014 Journal of Economic Literature essay on Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History (Oxford, 2013). (An ungated version is here.) Dixit’s essay contrasts the economist’s and the historian’s view of strategy — “strategy” being game theory for the former, a broader, interpretive, interdisciplinary exercise for the latter — but the discussion is highly relevant for strategic management. The management literature has traditionally taken a wide, flexible view of “strategy,” closer to the historian’s sense than the economist’s, though that is rapidly changing as game theory becomes more widespread in strategic management research and teaching.

Here’s an excerpt from Dixit’s opening, which gives you the flavor:

[Freedman] heads the preface with a memorable quote from Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” Later he quotes another fighter, the legendary German Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke: “no plan survived contact with the enemy” (p. 104). The game theorist will respond: “Those plans are not strategies. They are incomplete. They fail to specify any action at the node of the game tree where you get punched in the mouth or meet the enemy army, or in the ensuing subgame.” It would be extreme stupidity, or arrogance tantamount to stupidity, for a boxer not to recognize the possibility of getting punched in the mouth. And although avoiding battle may be an important aspect of military strategy in many situations (see pp. 47–9), every plan should include a provision for action if or when battle commences. Tyson, or Freedman, will probably counter that even if the boxer starts with a complete plan that specifies the action for this contingency, the punch will make him forget the plan and react hot-headedly. Modern game theorists exposed to behavioral ideas will admit some truth in this, and agree that the boxer’s System 2 calculations are likely to fly out of the ring when the punch lands and System 1 instincts will take over. But they will add that that makes it all the more important for the boxer to strategize better in advance—to take actions before getting punched, either to reduce the risk, or to arrange matters in such a way that the anger and instinct (or the prospects of such reactions) are put to more effective use, as with the strategy of brinkmanship. More generally, “the art of creating power” often entails strategic moves like commitments, threats and promises that game theorists have analyzed following Thomas Schelling (1960). And Freedman’s picture of “strategy as a System 2 process engaged in a tussle with System 1 thinking” (p. 605) looks remarkably like Schelling’s (1984, ch. 3) “intimate contest for self-command.”

I have a twofold purpose in constructing the above exchange. One is to highlight the difference between the perspectives of economists and historians in thinking about the same situation. The second is to argue that each has something to learn from the other, and a fuller understanding can result from their dialog. The two perspectives share a lot of middle ground, and have useful complementarities.

The thoughtful essay is well worth reading in its entirety.

29 December 2014 at 2:47 pm 2 comments

The Paper the World Needs Right Now

| Lasse Lien |

I strongly think this paper is both timely and useful.


21 December 2014 at 1:22 pm 10 comments

Behavioral Contract Theory

| Peter Klein |

The December 2014 issue of the Journal of Economic Literature contains a nice review article on “Behavioral Contract Theory” by Botond Köszegi. Abstract below, ungated version here.

This review provides a critical survey of psychology-and-economics (“behavioral-economics”) research in contract theory. First, I introduce the theories of individual decision making most frequently used in behavioral contract theory, and formally illustrate some of their implications in contracting settings. Second, I provide a more comprehensive (but informal) survey of the psychology-and-economics work on classical contract-theoretic topics: moral hazard, screening, mechanism design, and incomplete contracts. I also summarize research on a new topic spawned by psychology and economics, exploitative contracting, that studies contracts designed primarily to take advantage of agent mistakes.

12 December 2014 at 1:08 pm 2 comments

Two Interesting NBER Papers

| Peter Klein |

A couple of recent NBER papers of interest to O&Mers, one from Doug Irwin, another from Luis Garicano and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg:

Adam Smith’s “Tolerable Administration of Justice” and the Wealth of Nations
Douglas A. Irwin
NBER Working Paper No. 20636, October 2014

In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argues that a country’s national income depends on its labor productivity, which in turn hinges on the division of labor. But why are some countries able to take advantage of the division of labor and become rich, while others fail to do so and remain poor? Smith’s answer, in an important but neglected theme of his work, is the security of property rights that enable individuals to “secure the fruits of their own labor” and allow the division of labor to occur. Countries that can establish a “tolerable administration of justice” to secure property rights and allow investment and exchange to take place will see economic progress take place. Smith’s emphasis on a country’s “institutions” in determining its relative income has been supported by recent empirical work on economic development.

Knowledge-based Hierarchies: Using Organizations to Understand the Economy
Luis Garicano, Esteban Rossi-Hansberg
NBER Working Paper No. 20607, October 2014

We argue that incorporating the decision of how to organize the acquisition, use, and communication of knowledge into economic models is essential to understand a wide variety of economic phenomena. We survey the literature that has used knowledge-based hierarchies to study issues like the evolution of wage inequality, the growth and productivity of firms, economic development, the gains from international trade, as well as offshoring and the formation of international production teams, among many others. We also review the nascent empirical literature that has, so far, confirmed the importance of organizational decisions and many of its more salient implications.

Update: See also Irwin’s article in Monday’s WSJ: “The Ultimate Global Antipoverty Program.”

3 November 2014 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

The Use of History in Management Research and Education

| Peter Klein |

Another book recommendation, also courtesy of EH.Net. The book is Organizations in Time: History, Theory, Methods (Oxford University Press, 2014), edited by Marcelo Bucheli and R. Daniel Wadhwani. (Bucheli is author of an excellent book on the United Fruit Company.) Organizations in Time is about of the use of history in management research and education. Perhaps surprisingly, the field of business history is not usually part of the business school curriculum. In the US at least, business historians are typically affiliated with history or economics departments, not management departments or other parts of the business school. EH.Net reviewer Andrew Smith notes the following:

Until the 1960s, economic history and business history had an important place in business school teaching and research.  Many management scholars then decided to emulate research models developed in the hard sciences, which led to history becoming marginal in most business schools. History lost respect among positivistic management academics because historians made few broad theoretical claims, rarely discussed their research methodologies, and did not explicitly identify their independent and dependent variables. Historians in management schools became, effectively, disciplinary guests in their institutions.

The period from 2008 to the present has witnessed a revival of interest in history on the part of consumers of economic knowledge in a variety of academic disciplines, not to mention society as a whole. . . . It is now widely recognized that there needs to be more history in business school research and teaching. However, as Marcelo Bucheli and Dan Wadhwani note in the introductory essay, this apparent consensus obscures a lack of clarity about what a “historic turn” would, in practice, involve (p. 5).

This volume argues that the historic turn cannot simply be about going to the historical record to gather data points for the testing of various social-scientific theories, which is what scholars such as Reinhart and Rogoff do. Rather than being yet another device for allowing the quantitative social sciences to colonize the past, the historic turn should involve the adoption of historical methods by other management school academics. At the very least, people in the field of organization studies should borrow more tools from the historian’s toolkit.

Read the book (or at least the review) to learn more about these tools and approaches, which involve psychology, embeddedness, path dependence, and other concepts familiar to O&M readers.

23 July 2014 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

Competition in Early Telephone Networks

| Peter Klein |

As with other technologies involving network effects, the early telephone industry featured competing, geographically overlapping networks. Robert MacDougall provides a fascinating history of this period in The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). From the book blurb:

In the decades around 1900, ordinary citizens—farmers, doctors, small-town entrepreneurs—established tens of thousands of independent telephone systems, stringing their own wires to bring this new technology to the people. Managed by opportunists and idealists alike, these small businesses were motivated not only by profit but also by the promise of open communication as a weapon against monopoly capital and for protection of regional autonomy. As the Bell empire grew, independents fought fiercely to retain control of their local networks and companies—a struggle with an emerging corporate giant that has been almost entirely forgotten.

David Hochfelder wrote a thoughtful review which appeared today on EH.Net. As Hochfelder points out, the history of the telephone is not just about technology and market structure, but broader social themes as well:

At one level, this is a story about industrial competition. At a deeper level, it reveals competing visions of an important technology, the social role that it ought to play. MacDougall shows that the Bell System and the Independents envisioned the telephone in far different ways. Bell, especially under Theodore Vail, president of AT&T between 1907 and 1919, sought to build a unified telecommunications network that spanned the United States. Bell Canada espoused a different vision, that the telephone ought to remain an expensive urban medium primarily used for business purposes. Both Bell systems shared the ideology that the telephone industry ought to be controlled by centralized, national corporations. On the other hand, the Independents described the Bell System as a grasping octopus that wanted a stranglehold over the nation’s communications. The Independents offered instead a vision of the telephone as a people’s network that enhanced local ties and preserved community autonomy. In the United States, MacDougall claims that the Independents’ vision for the telephone “descended from a civic understanding of communication that went back to the American Revolution,” that “free and open communications were a basic ingredient of democracy” (p. 5). On a more mundane level, the Independents encouraged social uses of the telephone — like gossiping and banjo-playing — that the Bell System actively discouraged at the time.

18 July 2014 at 6:38 pm Leave a comment

The Origin of Social Norms

| Peter Klein |

Some findings that would not have surprised Carl Menger:

Ode to the sea: Workplace Organizations and Norms of Cooperation
Uri Gneezy, Andreas Leibbrandt, John A. List
NBER Working Paper No. 20234, June 2014

The functioning and well-being of any society and organization critically hinges on norms of cooperation that regulate social activities. Empirical evidence on how such norms emerge and in which environments they thrive remains a clear void in the literature. To provide an initial set of insights, we overlay a set of field experiments in a natural setting. Our approach is to compare behavior in Brazilian fishermen societies that differ along one major dimension: the workplace organization. In one society (located by the sea) fishermen are forced to work in groups whereas in the adjacent society (located on a lake) fishing is inherently an individual activity. We report sharp evidence that the sea fishermen trust and cooperate more and have greater ability to coordinate group actions than their lake fishermen counterparts. These findings are consistent with the argument that people internalize social norms that emerge from specific needs and support the idea that socio-ecological factors play a decisive role in the proliferation of pro-social behaviors.

I await comments below about how social norms emerge and persist not because they facilitate cooperation and joint gains, but because they legitimize existing social structures or support exploitation or power or. . . .

23 June 2014 at 2:43 pm 5 comments

Gans on Lepore on Christensen

| Peter Klein |

Josh Gans has some useful remarks on Jill Lepore’s New Yorker essay on Clayton Christensen.

Lepore only deals with the easy marks in her take down of Christensen and one suspects Christensen and his supporters can easily fend those off. It is the fundamental contradiction in taking a positive theory towards prediction that is where this entire ‘disruption industry’ falls down. I’d like to see journalists engaging more on that level so that we can be done with those bridges too far for good.

What Josh means by “fundamental contradiction” is that a disruptive technology, in Christensen’s definition, must not only be behind the cutting edge in some technical dimension, but also satisfy unmet consumer demands. The latter must be uncertain ex ante, otherwise the market leaders would also be developing the disruptive technology. Christensen advises incumbents to “disrupt themselves,” but this assumes they know which technologies will eventually be disruptive. Because they don’t, they must choose among several alternatives, including “do nothing” (i.e., try to exploit late-mover advantage).

The incumbent’s decision, contrary to Christensen’s reasoning, reflects entrepreneurial judgment, which may or may not be correct. There is no formula for managing disruptive technologies.

See also Lynne’s insightful comments.

17 June 2014 at 11:13 am 5 comments

Knowledge Elites, Inequality, and Economic Growth

| Peter Klein |

An interesting paper from Mara P. Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer examines the role of “knowledge elites” — individuals at the upper tail of the human capital distribution* — in French economic growth around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Key passage:

To measure the historical presence of knowledge elites, we use city-level subscriptions to the famous Encyclopédie in mid-18th century France. We show that subscriber density is a strong predictor of city growth after 1750, but not before the onset of French industrialization. Alternative measures of development confirm this pattern: soldier height and industrial activity are strongly associated with subscriber density after, but not before, 1750. Literacy, on the other hand, does not predict growth. Finally, by joining data on British patents with a large French firm survey from 1837, we provide evidence for the mechanism: upper tail knowledge raised the productivity in innovative industrial technology.

In other words, growth is driven by the knowledge (and, presumably, skills, preferences, and beliefs) of the elites, not the population at large.

Squicciarini and Voigtländer don’t deal directly with the distribution of income and wealth (they do show that regions with higher Encyclopédie subscriber density had higher per-capita incomes), presumably those individuals in the upper tail of the knowledge distribution were also one-percenters in income or wealth. This brings to mind one of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s arguments about inequality, namely that it spurs technological innovation:

[I]t is a commonplace that things which are now provided inexpensively to the many, say spices or the newspaper, were originally luxuries which could be offered only because some few were willing and able to buy them at high prices. It is difficult to say what the economic development of the West would have been . . . if the productive effort had been aimed at providing more of the things needed by all, to the exclusion of a greater variety of things desired by minorities [i.e., elites]. . . . History shows us that each successive enlargement of the opportunities to consume was linked with unequal distribution of the means to consume.

I suspect Squicciarini and Voigtländer’s knowledge elites were largely the same as de Jouvenel’s “minorities” (in a robustness check for reverse causation, Squicciarini and Voightländer use membership in scientific societies as a proxy for knowledge elites, and these scientific societies were the primary producers and consumers of scientific instruments, for example). What would Monsieur Piketty say about this, I wonder?

* Caveats about human capital notwithstanding (1, 2).

16 June 2014 at 9:32 am 2 comments

Mark Casson’s The Entrepreneur at 30

| Peter Klein |

2012 marked the 30th anniversary of Mark Casson’s classic work The Entrepreneur: An Economic Theory. Casson was one of the first economists since Frank Knight to elaborate on the role that uncertainty and judgment play in entrepreneurial decisions. Casson’s book offers not only a critique of the theories of competition and the firm offered in neoclassical microeconomics, but also a positive theory of the entrepreneur as a judgmental decision-maker under uncertainty. Casson’s work had a strong influence on the Foss-Klein approach to entrepreneurship, as well as Dick’s work on the theory of the firm.

Sharon Alvarez, Andrew Godley, and Mike Wright have written a nice tribute to The Entrepreneur in the latest edition of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal.

Mark Casson’s The Entrepreneur: An Economic Theory (1982) has become one of the most influential books in the field of entrepreneurship. For the first time, this article outlines its origins and summarizes its main themes. The article goes on to show how Casson’s subsequent research has closely followed the research agenda he set for himself in The Entrepreneur and illustrates the continuing challenge his work presents to entrepreneurship scholars. The article is based on an interview the authors conducted with Mark Casson on the thirtieth anniversary of the book’s publication.

As Sharon, Andrew, and Mike note, “Casson’s incorporation of Knightian judgment into a broader economic framework is probably the area where the book has had its greatest impact (albeit mostly among management scholars and not economists).” For Casson — as well as Knight — judgment constitutes decision-making under uncertainty that cannot be captured in a set of formal decision rules, such that “different individuals, sharing similar objectives and acting under similar circumstances, would make different decisions” (Casson, 1982, p. 21). Unfortunately, while judgment continues to play an important role in entrepreneurship research, it has been largely overshadowed (in my reading) by the opportunity-discovery perspective that builds on Kirzner rather than Knight (though that perspective is itself coming under heavy fire).

The paper is gated, unfortunately. But you can access Casson’s own summary of his (and others’) ideas in this EconLib article.

6 June 2014 at 10:42 pm 2 comments

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

Corporate Governance in the 19th Century

| Peter Klein |

A new NBER paper on 19th-century manufacturing firms in Massachusetts finds that incorporation rates, ownership concentration, and and managerial ownership varied systematically with technology (factory versus artisanal production, use of unskilled labor, etc.). In other words, governance forms were not determined primarily by the legal or regulatory environment, social and cultural issues, the desire for legitimacy, or other noneconomic factors, but by standard agency considerations.

Corporate Governance and the Development of Manufacturing Enterprises in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts
Eric Hilt
NBER Working Paper No. 20096, May 2014

This paper analyzes the use of the corporate form among nineteenth-century manufacturing firms in Massachusetts, from newly collected data from 1875. An analysis of incorporation rates across industries reveals that corporations were formed at higher rates among industries in which firm size was larger. But conditional on firm size, the industries in which production was conducted in factories, rather than artisanal shops, saw more frequent use of the corporate form. On average, the ownership of the corporations was quite concentrated, with the directors holding 45 percent of the shares. However, the corporations whose shares were quoted on the Boston Stock Exchange were ‘widely held’ at rates comparable to modern American public companies. The production methods utilized in in different industries also influenced firms’ ownership structures. In many early factories, steam power was combined with unskilled labor, and managers likely performed a complex supervisory role that was critical to the success of the firm. Consistent with the notion that monitoring management was especially important among such firms, corporations in industries that made greater use of steam power and unskilled labor had more concentrated ownership, higher levels of managerial ownership, and smaller boards of directors.

6 May 2014 at 8:48 am Leave a comment

Notes on Inequality

| Peter Klein |

Everyone’s talking about inequality. I confess don’t find inequality terribly interesting, intrinsically. Of course, inequality that results from special government privilege — the incomes of top executives at Lockheed Martin or Goldman Sachs, the speaking fees earned by Hillary Clinton, the wealth of US sugar farmers — should be analyzed and criticized, and those privileges removed. Firm policies that result in pay differentials — pay-for-performance schemes, for example — are important and interesting, not because they generate inequality per se, but because they have systematic and significant effects on firm behavior and performance. Of course, inequality may have important long-run social and cultural effects, but these are highly speculative and not obviously actionable.

I haven’t yet read Thomas Piketty’s new book but am aware of — and amazed by — the buzz it’s generating. I suspect most of the excitement reflects confirmation bias: people who think inequality is the major issue of our time naturally think this is the most important economics book of the decade, probably before reading it. (Naturally, I’d love to exploit that formula in marketing my own books.)

I do have a few thoughts on how the discussion is framed, in light of Piketty’s work. First, Piketty and his admirers define “capital” as a homogeneous, liquid pool of funds, not a heterogeneous stock of capital assets. This is not merely a terminological issue, as those familiar with the debates on capital theory from the 1930s and 1940s are well aware. Piketty’s approach focuses on the quantity of capital and, more importantly, the rate of return on capital. But these concepts make little sense from the perspective of Austrian capital theory, which emphasizes the complexity, variety, and quality of the economy’s capital structure. There is no way to measure the quantity of capital, nor would such a number be meaningful. The value of heterogeneous capital goods depends on their place in an entrepreneur’s subjective production plan. Production is fraught with uncertainty. Entrepreneurs acquire, deploy, combine, and recombine capital goods in anticipation of profit, but there is no such thing as a “rate of return on invested capital.” (more…)

23 April 2014 at 10:32 am 19 comments

Firm Boundaries Matter

| Peter Klein |

Do firm boundaries — defined as ownership of the relevant capital goods — affect firm behavior and performance? Or is the firm best understood as a nexus of contracts, in which ownership boundaries represent arbitrary legal distinctions? Coase, Williamson, Hart, and Foss and Klein take the former position, while Alchian (sometimes), Demsetz, Jensen, and Meckling lean toward the latter.

A very interesting paper from Amit Seru, “Firm Boundaries Matter: Evidence from Conglomerates and R&D Activity,” offers some empirical evidence on the effects of boundary choices on innovation, finding significant and important effects.

This paper examines the impact of the conglomerate form on the scale and novelty of corporate R&D activity. I exploit a quasi-experiment involving failed mergers to generate exogenous variation in acquisition outcomes of target firms. A difference-in-difference estimation reveals that, relative to failed targets, firms acquired in a diversifying mergers produce both a smaller number of innovations and also less novel innovations, where innovations are measured using patent-based metrics. The treatment effect is amplified if the acquiring conglomerate operates a more active internal capital market and is largely driven by inventors becoming less productive after the merger rather than inventor exits. Concurrently, acquirers move R&D activity outside the boundary of the firm via the use of strategic alliances and joint-ventures. There is complementary evidence that conglomerates with more novel R&D tend to operate with decentralized R&D budgets. These findings suggests that conglomerate organizational form affects the allocation and productivity of resources.

Here is a longer, less technical write-up on the Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation blog.

2 April 2014 at 10:35 am 1 comment

In the Journals

| Peter Klein |

Some interesting review issues and special collections are hot off the virtual presses. The Journal of Management has just released its annual review issue with a number of valuable papers, including this one of particular interest to the O&M crowd:

The Many Futures of Contracts: Moving Beyond Structure and Safeguarding to Coordination and Adaptation
Donald J. Schepker, Won-Yong Oh, Aleksey Martynov, and Laura Poppo

In this article, we review the literature on interfirm contracting in an effort to synthesize existing research and direct future scholarship. While transaction cost economics (TCE) is the most prominent perspective informing the “optimal governance” and “safeguarding” function of contracts, our review indicates other perspectives are necessary to understand how contracts are structured: relational capabilities (i.e., building cooperation, creating trust), firm capabilities, relational contracts, and the real option value of a contract. Our review also indicates that contract research is moving away from a narrow focus on contract structure and its safeguarding function toward a broader focus that also highlights adaptation and coordination. We end by noting the following research gaps: consequences of contracting, specifically outcome assessment; strategic options, decision rights, and the evolution of dynamic capabilities; contextual constraints of relational capabilities; contextual constraints of contracting capabilities; complements, substitutes, and bundles; and contract structure and social process.

The always-interesting Strategic Organization has also released a package of previously published papers as a virtual special issue titled “Whither Strategy?” I have a soft spot for anything using the word “whither,” but this is a great collection by any name. Check out the ToC:

17 January 2014 at 12:02 pm 3 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).
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).
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