The man who restored the pin factory to its rightful place at the heart of economic theory celebrates his 100th birthday on December 29th. The economics profession was slow to recognise Ronald Coase’s genius. He first expounded his thinking about the firm in a lecture in Dundee in 1932, when he was just 21 years old. Nobody much listened. He published “The Nature of the Firm” five years later. It went largely unread.
But Mr Coase laboured on regardless: a second seminal article on “The Problem of Social Cost” laid the intellectual foundations of the deregulation revolution of the 1980s. Eventually, Mr Coase acquired an army of followers, such as Oliver Williamson, who fleshed out his ideas. In 1991, aged 80, he was awarded a Nobel prize. Far from resting on his laurels, Mr Coase will publish a new book in 2011, with Ning Wang of Arizona State University, on “How China Became Capitalist”.
His central insight was that firms exist because going to the market all the time can impose heavy transaction costs. You need to hire workers, negotiate prices and enforce contracts, to name but three time-consuming activities. A firm is essentially a device for creating long-term contracts when short-term contracts are too bothersome. But if markets are so inefficient, why don’t firms go on getting bigger for ever? Mr Coase also pointed out that these little planned societies impose transaction costs of their own, which tend to rise as they grow bigger. The proper balance between hierarchies and markets is constantly recalibrated by the forces of competition: entrepreneurs may choose to lower transaction costs by forming firms but giant firms eventually become sluggish and uncompetitive.
Mr Coase’s theory continues to explain some of the most puzzling problems in modern business. Take the rise of vast and highly diversified business groups in the emerging world, such as India’s Tata group and Turkey’s Koc Holding. Many Western observers dismiss these as relics of a primitive form of capitalism. But they make perfect sense when you consider the transaction costs of going to the market. Where trust in established institutions is scarce, it makes sense for companies to stretch their brands over many industries. And where capital and labour markets are inefficient, it makes equal sense for companies to allocate their own capital and train their own loyalists.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Theoretical Foundations of Corporate Law: Ronald Coase
For those interested in theoretical aspects of the firm and their influence in corporate law, the Schumpeter column in the Economist discusses the academic life of Ronald Coase, who turns 100 this month. Here are some excerpts: