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A Theory of Firm Scope

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  • Oliver Hart
  • Bengt Holmstrom

Abstract

The existing literature on firms, based on incomplete contracts and property rights, emphasizes that the ownership of assets - and thereby firm boundaries - is determined in such a way as to encourage relationship-specific investments by the appropriate parties. It is generally accepted that this approach applies to owner-managed firms better than to large companies. In this paper, we attempt to broaden the scope of the property rights approach by developing a simple model with three key ingredients: (a) decision rights can be transferred ex ante through ownership, (b) managers (and possibly workers) enjoy private benefits that are non-transferable, and (c) owners can divert a firm's profit. In our basic model decisions are ex post non-contractible; in an extension we use the idea that contracts are reference points to relax this assumption. We show that firm boundaries matter. Nonintegrated firms fail to account for the external effects that their decisions have on other firms. An integrated firm can internalize such externalities, but it does not put enough weight on the private benefits of managers and workers. We explore this tradeoff in a model that focuses on the difficulties companies face in cooperating through the market if the benefits from cooperation are unevenly divided; therefore, they may sometimes end up merging. We show that the assumption that contracts are reference points introduces a friction that permits an analysis of delegation.

Suggested Citation

  • Oliver Hart & Bengt Holmstrom, 2008. "A Theory of Firm Scope," NBER Working Papers 14613, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14613
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    File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w14613.pdf
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Hart, Oliver & Moore, John, 1990. "Property Rights and the Nature of the Firm," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 98(6), pages 1119-1158, December.
    2. Rotemberg, Julio J & Saloner, Garth, 1994. "Benefits of Narrow Business Strategies," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(5), pages 1330-1349, December.
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    4. Aghion, Philippe & Tirole, Jean, 1997. "Formal and Real Authority in Organizations," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 105(1), pages 1-29, February.
    5. Oliver Hart & John Moore, 2005. "On the Design of Hierarchies: Coordination versus Specialization," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 113(4), pages 675-702, August.
    6. George J. Mailath & Volker Nocke & Andrew Postlewaite, 2004. "Business Strategy, Human Capital, and Managerial Incentives," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 13(4), pages 617-633, December.
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    24. Philippe Aghion & Mathias Dewatripont & Patrick Rey, 2004. "Transferable Control," Journal of the European Economic Association, MIT Press, vol. 2(1), pages 115-138, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Wallis, John Joseph, 2011. "Institutions, organizations, impersonality, and interests: The dynamics of institutions," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 79(1-2), pages 48-64, June.
    2. Paul Walker, 2010. "The (Non)Theory Of The Knowledge Firm," Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Scottish Economic Society, vol. 57(1), pages 1-32, February.
    3. Patrick Legros & Andrew F. Newman, 2013. "A Price Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 128(2), pages 725-770.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D23 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Organizational Behavior; Transaction Costs; Property Rights
    • L23 - Industrial Organization - - Firm Objectives, Organization, and Behavior - - - Organization of Production

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