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More is Less: Why Parties May Deliberately Write Incomplete Contracts

  • Maija Halonen-Akatwijuka
  • Oliver D. Hart

Why are contracts incomplete? Transaction costs and bounded rationality cannot be a total explanation since states of the world are often describable, foreseeable, and yet are not mentioned in a contract. Asymmetric information theories also have limitations. We offer an explanation based on "contracts as reference points". Including a contingency of the form, "The buyer will require a good in event E", has a benefit and a cost. The benefit is that if E occurs there is less to argue about; the cost is that the additional reference point provided by the outcome in E can hinder (re)negotiation in states outside E. We show that if parties agree about a reasonable division of surplus, an incomplete contract can be strictly superior to a contingent contract.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 19001.

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Date of creation: Apr 2013
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:19001
Note: CF LE
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  1. Paul Oyer, 2004. "Why Do Firms Use Incentives That Have No Incentive Effects?," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 59(4), pages 1619-1650, 08.
  2. Bajari, Patrick & Tadelis, Steven, 2001. "Incentives versus Transaction Costs: A Theory of Procurement Contracts," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 32(3), pages 387-407, Autumn.
  3. David Card, 1984. "An Empirical Model of Wage Indexation Provisions in Union Contracts," NBER Working Papers 1388, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Herold, Florian, 2010. "Contractual incompleteness as a signal of trust," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 68(1), pages 180-191, January.
  5. Aghion, Philippe & Bolton, Patrick, 1987. "Contracts as a Barrier to Entry," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(3), pages 388-401, June.
  6. Fabian Herweg & Klaus Schmidt, 2012. "Loss Aversion and Ex Post Inefficient Renegotiation," CESifo Working Paper Series 4031, CESifo Group Munich.
  7. 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.
  8. Oliver Hart & John Moore, 2008. "Contracts as Reference Points," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 123(1), pages 1-48.
  9. Ernst Fehr & Oliver Hart & Christian Zehnder, 2008. "Contracts as reference points � experimental evidence," IEW - Working Papers 393, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
  10. Steven Shavell, 1980. "Damage Measures for Breach of Contract," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 11(2), pages 466-490, Autumn.
  11. Kathryn E. Spier, 1992. "Incomplete Contracts and Signalling," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 23(3), pages 432-443, Autumn.
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