The Economic System


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Economic Systems

A sort of specialization has thus arisen that separates economics, as an academic discipline dedicated to the study of how markets function and prices are created, and professional business administration schools, which are dedicated to meeting the demand for trained specialists in management positions. Teaching and research into management has thus become the area for studying specialized administrative functions in firms, from personnel directors to general management, including finances, marketing, and operations. The situation changed in the s when a report on the teaching of business administration in the US, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation, recommended that universities base their teaching of this subject on rigorous academic research, especially economics and behavioral sciences 2.

In response to this recommendation, business schools broadened their teaching staff to include academic economists, along with professors and researchers from other scientific, technological, and social disciplines. At the same time, firms and management processes became the subject of growing intellectual interest. Research into firms took shape and gained substance, receiving contributions from a broad variety of academic disciplines.


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Economics is one of those disciplines, and economic research has a growing interest in firms themselves, without the need to subordinate that interest to the study of how markets function. This work has posed intellectual challenges to academic economists researching firms and has begun to receive attention. An article on the nature of firms, published by Ronald Coase as far back as , was ignored until much later in the twentieth century. Coase asks: If the market and prices are so effective in their functions, why are there firms in which resource management is not carried out on the basis of prices but rather according to the orders and authority of managers?

Orthodox economics have always recognized the limitations or failures of the market to harmonize individual rationality private profit and collective rationality social wellbeing in specific contexts.

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To Coase, firms exemplify an institution that arises in the private sector when the coordination of resource assignment is most efficient if carried out by the visible hand of the firm director rather than by the invisible hand of the market. Firm and market switch roles to organize exchange, exploiting comparative advantages and suggesting an institutional specialization in terms of relative comparative advantage.

One is the interest in explaining the limits of firms, while the other seeks to explain their internal organization. The limits of a firm have been defined horizontally and vertically, while their inner workings are viewed in terms of problems of coordination and problems of motivation. The study of the horizontal limits of firms has concentrated mainly on explaining the size of a firm in terms of its volume of production or use of resources needed for that volume, including, for example, the number of workers employed.

This explanation relies, fundamentally, on two predetermined variables: the efficient scale of production, and the size of the market. If the market is sufficiently large, competitive pressure will force firms to converge toward a size close to the scale that insures a minimum of production costs efficient scale. Differences in production that minimize unit costs differences in production technology and degrees of presence of growing returns to scale explain the heterogeneity of firm sizes. When market size is small with relation the efficient scale, one can expect the market to be dominated by a single firm, in what has come to be known as a natural monopoly.

From a dynamic perspective, a change in the horizontal limits of a firm can be explained by changes in technology or market size. The study of the horizontal limits of firms is part of the broader neoclassical theory of production, in which production technology is summed up as a function that represents the most advanced technological knowledge available at the time being studied, in order to transform resources into goods or services of greater value or utility.

This representation of technology and the price of resources is used to derive the functions of unit cost and supply mentioned above. That theory fails to explain why some firm executives direct a single production plant while others direct several. The study of the limits of a firm and its internal organization—firm theory—includes contractual considerations such as availability of, and access to, information, and the capacity to process it, as well as the merely technological considerations postulated by production theory.

In a nutshell, figure 1 orders and sums up, on the basis of time and thematic areas, the main contributions of firm theory from a contractual perspective, in the broadest sense. This covers the rest of the materials that have drawn the interest of the economic theory of firms. The limits of a firm coincide with the authority with which a firm director is able to direct the assignment of resources, while the market determines coordination among firms.


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How many resources a firm director can control, and how much activity his firm can carry out and place on the market, depend on the relative efficiency of a mechanism that coordinates one or the other. That efficiency is defined by comparing respective transaction costs. Early research Arrow , Williamson —; Klein, Crawford and Alchian, concentrated mostly on those attributes that facilitate an ex ante prediction, in terms of transaction cost, of comparative advantages when resources are directed by either a firm director or the market.

Uncertainty and asymmetrical information among those involved in such an exchange, as well as the specificity of assets of various types invested in transactions are the attributes that must, according to this theory, be most clearly discerned when explaining the vertical limit of firms. Empirical evidence supports those conclusions. Given that specificity of assets and asymmetry of information are conditions that relatively favor the use of a firm rather than the market, and given that they occur in a very high portion of economic transactions, the TTC theory of transaction costs tends to predict a leading role for firms in the direction of resources in a higher percentage than is actually observed.

On that premise, beginning with the work of Grossman and Hart and especially Hart and Moore , the theory of property rights TPR offers considerations about brakes to vertical expansion by firms on the basis of an identification of the source of transaction costs to the firm, which are ignored by TTC. Particularly, the TPR emphasizes how the key to defining the limits of a firm is the distribution of ownership of non-human assets.

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In that sense, the TPR sees the definition of firm limits in term of the assets it owns. One important implication of this view of firms is that, since people cannot be owned—excluding slavery—workers are outside the limits of a firm. When a firm expands its presence as a coordinating mechanism taking on more activities under the direction of management , it is generally increasing the amount of non-human assets it owns, to the detriment of ownership by others outside the firm. Supposing that non-human assets are complementary with those specific assets that result from the investment in human capital by people; when a firm increases its control of non-human assets it is decreasing incentive to invest in human capital on the part of those who lose those assets that they previously owned.

The TTC emphasizes the transaction transfer between technologically separable units as the basic unit of analysis whose inclusion in, or exclusion from, the perimeter of a firm is decided in the margin. The TPR, on the other hand, emphasizes decisions about assigning the property of non-human assets as a determinant of firm limits. In both cases, one detects a certain distancing with respect to the view of united management adopted by Coase in referring to the nature of firms. One way of reconciling these differing approaches is to include a contractual viewpoint in the analysis.

Ownership of assets and the hierarchy of authority attributed to the firm and its director are economically significant to the degree that transaction costs require the regulation of transactions through incomplete contracts, that is, contracts that define the general framework of relations among agents even though there are many contingencies for which particular responses have not been predetermined. Ownership of assets implies the capacity or power to decide about their use in any sense not previously dictated by contract, while the authority that Coase attributes to firm directors is fullest when job contracts are incomplete and the director has the contractual right to direct order his workers.

Simon was a pioneer in identifying the economic importance of incomplete contracts in relations between firm and workers although he did not relate his discoveries to the authority of contractual origin proposed by Coase. In a world where all relations among persons were regulated by complete contracts where anything that could happen in each relation was predetermined , the ownership of non-human assets and the authority of firm executives would be irrelevant since there would be no residual rights to decision, which do indeed exist when contracts are incomplete 3.

The fact that contracts have to be incomplete to avoid excessive transaction costs along with the repetition of relations among agents, opens the path to another type of contract whose viability and efficacy affect decisions about the limits of a firm: implicit contracts. Trust more easily emerges in interpersonal relations in which the power to make decisions is shared by all agents involved, rather than in situations where decision-making is more one-sided.

In order to exploit the advantages of implicit contracts in terms of low transaction costs , a decision about the limits of a firm in terms of the assignment of ownership of non-human assets employed in production will largely depend on a certain distribution of ownership. This distribution will serve to balance power and strengthen trust, forming a basis for relations among agents in the successive stages of the chain of production Baker, Murphy, and Gibbons Economic research has separated the study of firm limits from the study of what occurs within a firm with given limits. The internal organization of a firm the order that stems from the internal division of work, the exchange of information and the distribution of power in decision making is achieved through the coordination determining what each person is supposed to do and motivation being interested in doing it of the persons involved.

Economic analysis begins by separating the study of coordination problems from the study of motivation problems, although both play a significant part in a very realistic concept of firms and their management: the team concept. In order to study coordination, the concept of teamwork is postulated. For example: maximizing shared wealth.

While each person acts for the general good, what he or she must decide or do to achieve maximum efficiency and results depends on the information and actions of the other team members interdependence. In this context, coordinating individual action means influencing individual decisions mainly by exchanging information in order to harmonize them in the context of the existing interdependence, or else to change that interdependence in order to thus influence the needs of coordination itself Marshack and Radner ; Milgrom and Roberts In team organizations, coordination becomes a relevant problem because there is a considerable cost involved in producing and transmitting information.

Thus, the solutions to coordination problems discussed in articles, as well as those applied by firms, have had much to do with advances in information technology.

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On the other hand, production or team technology, refers to complementarity between resources belonging to different people who cooperate in the production process so that the joint exploitation of technology creates more potential wealth than individual exploitation would. Alchian and Demsetz place this characteristic of technology at the origin of firms as we know them, analyzing the collective functioning of team production with the opposite suppositions of team organization.

That is, that people who contribute complementary resources to production do so with the expectation of obtaining a maximum net individual reward regardless of the collective interest. Technology and teamwork lead only to coordination problems; team technology plus overlapping individual interests also called coalition lead to coordination problems and also to other motivation problems, which have attracted the greatest academic interest. Team technology impedes a consideration of joint production as the sum of individual production by those who participate in it.

The individual benefits that lead to participation in collective action and motivate the contribution of resources by each agent involved can only be defined in terms of joint production and contribution of resources, if these are observable. In principle, compensating participation in collective action with participation in joint output has the advantage of needing to measure only one variable.

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Nevertheless, it has disadvantages known as stowaway behavior Holmstrom The alternative to measuring resource contribution quantity and quality demands specialization in that task and a capacity to address the question of how to insure the efficiency of whoever is monitoring the process. Alchian and Demsetz offer an organizational solution in which the monitor bilaterally contracts each participant in a collective action, agrees on a compensation commensurate with the amount of resources he or she has contributed, acquires the right to supervise his activity and direct his work, and retains the difference between what is produced and what he has agreed to pay, as his own compensation.

In sum, firm theory gives economic meaning to capitalist firms as we know them; in which firm directors centralize contracts and act as supervisors and coordinators in exchange for residual profits.


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The paradigm of team production, the bilateral character of contracts, and residual income profit for the firm director are the basis for successive contributions to firm theory, which characterize it as a nexus for contracts. This has led to new contributions in the organizational design of firms, such as: 1 determining the number of hierarchical levels of supervision and control Calvo and Wellisz ; Rosen ; 2 efficiently assigning risks for example, by creating separate collectives for the functions of director of resources, coordination, and motivation, and the functions of risk assumption, which led to the complex capitalist firm, or corporation Jensen and Meckling ; 3 determining the optimal distribution of decision-making power—centralization versus decentralization Agnion and Tirole ; Alonso, Dessein and Matouschek ; 4 designing complex incentive systems to stimulate effort that cannot be observed by a supervisor—agency theory Holmstrom , ; Holmstrom and Milgrom , 4.

With all of this work on the theory of firm limits and internal organization, the concept of a firm draws away from the idea of production and becomes that of a structure that governs the process of assigning resources, processing information, assigning decision-making power, evaluating work and awarding recompense. A careful reading of the works of Coase, and Alchian and Demsetz, reveals that they are really explaining the existence of a firm director who carries out concrete functions in the general framework of the specialization and division of work.

The best way to separate the firm from its director is to consider a firm as a legal entity recognized by law as a legitimate party in contracts and the capacity to own property.

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The common nexus among contracts, which is identified with firms, is generally a legal entity that enters into bilateral contacts with the different agents with whom it has relations. In order for a firm director to be able to coordinate and motivate people within the firm, its contract with them must include the possibility that a third party, also contracted by the firm, can carry out those functions. In the TPR, where the limits of a firm are related to the non-human assets it owns, it is necessary to explain why this property belongs to the legal entity that is a firm, rather than to the physical person that is its director.

In short, economic theories about firms will not be complete until they explain why the legal entity of the firm emerges as something different than the physical person that is its director. Texts about these theories offer various possible answers, all of which are somehow related to the desire to economize transaction costs:. The firm, as a legal entity, is not affected by the temporal limitations that affect living people. A longer time span, with no finite demarcations, is relevant to the viability of relations based on reciprocity that sustain mutual trust implicit contracts and bring economic value to a good reputation Kreps The legal entity, complemented by the variety of legal forms a firm can take when constituted under law, offers the possibility of managing risks, directing firm resources and financing its assets, which would not be possible if people were unable to differentiate between personal assets and firm assets.

With this explanation of the firm as a legal entity that owns assets, Holmstrom combines in a single problem of organizational design, decisions concerning firm limits, the assignment of ownership of non-human assets, and decisions about the coordination and motivation of work in the firm, which depend on internal organization. With this inclusive view of , Holmstrom manages to define a firm as a mini-economy whose directors wield solutions for inefficiency derived from problems of asymmetrical information and external effects in a way that resembles how the state wields authority in overall society.

There is, however an important difference: a firm is surrounded by markets that offer ways out, limiting possible excesses of power derived from the high concentration of assets that can be accumulated. As a legal entity that owns assets whose accessibility and conditions of use are decided by its directors, a firm becomes a powerful lever that affects the conduct of those persons who combine their work and knowledge with those assets.

Therefore, although it is formally true that a firm does not own human capital—the persons working there are outside its perimeter—its overall functioning is better understood when the workers are considered a part of it.

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