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Incomplete Contracts and the Theory of the Firm: What Have We Learned over the Past 25 Years?

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  • Philippe Aghion
  • Richard Holden

Abstract

Sanford Grossman and Oliver Hart used the theory of incomplete contracts to develop answers to the question "What is a firm, and what determines its boundaries?" in their path-breaking paper on "The Costs and Benefits of Ownership: A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration" ( Journal of Political Economy , 1986, vol. 94, no. 4). Perhaps the central issue is that economic actors are only boundedly rational and cannot anticipate all possible contingencies. It might well be that certain states of nature or actions cannot be verified by third parties after they arise, like certain qualities of a good to be traded in the future, and thus cannot be written into an enforceable contract. When contracts are incomplete, and consequently not all uses of an asset can be specified in advance, any contract negotiated in advance must leave some discretion over the use of the assets; and the "owner" of the firm is the party to whom the residual rights of control have been allocated at the contracting stage. The optimal allocation of property rights—or governance structure—is one that minimizes efficiency losses. This produces a theory of ownership and vertical integration as well as a theory of the firm. First we spell out Grossman and Hart's argument using a simple numerical example. Then we show how the incomplete contracts approach can be used to analyze the firms' internal organization; the firms' financial decisions; the costs and benefits from privatization; and the organization of international trade between inter- and intrafirm trade. We discuss several criticisms of the incomplete contracts/property rights methodology and review recent developments of the incomplete contracts approach.

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File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.25.2.181
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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 25 (2011)
Issue (Month): 2 (Spring)
Pages: 181-97

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:25:y:2011:i:2:p:181-97

Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.25.2.181
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References

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  1. Pol Antràs, 2003. "Incomplete Contracts and the Product Cycle," NBER Working Papers 9945, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Philippe Aghion & Jean Tirole, 1994. "Formal and Real Authority in Organizations," Working papers 95-8, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  3. Tercieux, Olivier & Aghion, Philippe & Fudenberg, Drew & Holden, Richard & Kunimoto, Takashi, 2012. "Subgame-Perfect Implementation Under Information Perturbations," Scholarly Articles 11224965, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  4. Ernst Fehr & Oliver Hart & Christian Zehnder, 2011. "Contracts as Reference Points--Experimental Evidence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 101(2), pages 493-525, April.
  5. Oliver Hart & John Moore, 2006. "Contracts as Reference Points," NBER Working Papers 12706, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Hart, Oliver & Shleifer, Andrei & Vishny, Robert W, 1997. "The Proper Scope of Government: Theory and an Application to Prisons," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 112(4), pages 1127-61, November.
  7. Klein, Benjamin & Crawford, Robert G & Alchian, Armen A, 1978. "Vertical Integration, Appropriable Rents, and the Competitive Contracting Process," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 21(2), pages 297-326, October.
  8. Bengt Holmstrom, 1979. "Moral Hazard and Observability," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 10(1), pages 74-91, Spring.
  9. Williamson, Oliver E, 1971. "The Vertical Integration of Production: Market Failure Considerations," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 61(2), pages 112-23, May.
  10. Aghion, Philippe & Bolton, Patrick, 1992. "An Incomplete Contracts Approach to Financial Contracting," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 59(3), pages 473-94, July.
  11. Francine Lafontaine & Margaret Slade, 2007. "Vertical Integration and Firm Boundaries: The Evidence," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 45(3), pages 629-685, September.
  12. Schmidt, Klaus M, 1996. "The Costs and Benefits of Privatization: An Incomplete Contracts Approach," Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 12(1), pages 1-24, April.
  13. Schmidt, Klaus M., 1996. "The costs and benefits of privatization: An incomplete contracts approach," Munich Reprints in Economics 19773, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
  14. Patrick Bolton & Antoine Faure-Grimaud, 2009. "Thinking Ahead: The Decision Problem," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 76(4), pages 1205-1238.
  15. Mirrlees, J A, 1999. "The Theory of Moral Hazard and Unobservable Behaviour: Part I," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 66(1), pages 3-21, January.
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Cited by:
  1. Alexander Radygin & Revold Entov, 2014. "The Fundamental Privatization Theorem: Ideology, Evolution, Practice," Working Papers 0087, Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, revised 2014.
  2. Paul Walker, 2013. "The ‘Reference Point’ Approach To The Theory Of The Firm: An Introduction," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 27(4), pages 670-695, 09.
  3. Altomonte, Carlo & Rungi, Armando, 2013. "Business groups as hierarchies of firms: determinants of vertical integration and performance," Working Paper Series 1554, European Central Bank.
  4. Tomoo Kikuchi & Kazuo Nishimura & John Stachurski, 2012. "Coase meets Tarski: New Insights from Coase's Theory of the Firm," KIER Working Papers 828, Kyoto University, Institute of Economic Research.
  5. Oliver D. Hart, 2011. "Noncontractible Investments and Reference Points," NBER Working Papers 16929, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. T. Christopher Borek & Angelo Frattarelli & Oliver Hart, 2013. "Tax Shelters or Efficient Tax Planning? A Theory of The Firm Perspective On the Economic Substance Doctrine," NBER Working Papers 19081, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Buehler, Stefan & Burghardt, Dirk, 2013. "Globalization and Vertical Structure: An Empirical Investigation," Economics Working Paper Series 1310, University of St. Gallen, School of Economics and Political Science.
  8. Bragelien, Iver & Impink, Joost, 2014. "Relationship-Specificity, Bargaining Power Growth, and Firm Performance," Discussion Papers 2014/4, Department of Business and Management Science, Norwegian School of Economics.
  9. Barrett, Christopher B. & Bachke, Maren E. & Bellemare, Marc F. & Michelson, Hope C. & Narayanan, Sudha & Walker, Thomas F., 2012. "Smallholder Participation in Contract Farming: Comparative Evidence from Five Countries," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 40(4), pages 715-730.

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