Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Ronald Coase

102 Years Young

This Blogger wishes Ronald Coase, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Law School, a happy birthday.  Born in 1910, Coase is 102 years old today.  As many readers know, Coase received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1991.  Here is an excerpt from the Royal Swedish Academy's Press Release announcing the award:

"Coase showed that traditional basic microeconomic theory was incomplete because it only included production and transport costs, whereas it neglected the costs of entering into and executing contracts and managing organizations.  Such costs are commonly known as transaction costs and they account for a considerable share of the total use of resources in the economy.  Thus, traditional theory had not embodied all of the restrictions which bind the allocations of economic agents.  When transaction costs are taken into account, it turns out that the existence of firms, different corporate forms, variations in contract arrangements, the structure of the financial system and even fundamental features of the legal system can be given relatively simple explanations.  By incorporating different types of transaction costs, Coase paved the way for a systematic analysis of institutions in the economic system and their significance."

Coase’s work is the foundation of what modern scholars call “Transaction Cost Economics “ (“TCE” for short).  Coase began that work in 1937, with his now famous article “The Nature of the Firm.” As explained in a previous post, TCE eventually revolutionized antitrust law and policy, by altering how economists viewed both complete vertical integration and partial contractual integration via non-standard contracts such as exclusive dealing, minimum resale price maintenance, exclusive territories,  location clauses and tying agreements.  When Coase published "The Nature of the Firm," economists identified two, and only two, possible reasons for complete vertical integration.  First, such integration could create technological efficiencies and thus reduce production costs.  Second, integration could foreclose rivals from important  sources of inputs, thereby creating or fortifying the integrating party's market power.  Thus, when economists, or, for that matter, antitrust courts or enforcement agencies, could not identify any efficiency purposes for such integration, they naturally inferred that the conduct was anticompetitive.  The result was the so-called "inhospitality tradition" of antitrust law.

Coase's work and the resulting transaction cost revolution completely undermined these accounts of complete and partial integration.  According to Coase, reliance upon an unfettered market to conduct economic activity entailed various costs, what he dubbed "transaction costs."  By integrating vertically, then, a firm could avoid such transaction costs.  As Coase noted at the time, this explanation had nothing to do with market power or monopoly considerations.  Nor did this explanation depend upon any reduction in technological production costs.

Unfortunately Coase's work lay dormant for three decades, during which time antitrust courts and the enforcement agencies became increasingly hostile to complete and partial vertical integration.  During the mid-1960s, economists and others began to rediscover Coase's 1937 work, perhaps inspired to do so by Coase's "Problem of Social Cost," published in 1960.  Most famously, Oliver Williamson began to rearticulate and expand upon Coase's transaction cost thesis.  In particular, Williamson identified specific investments and the resulting threat of opportunism as an important source of transaction costs.  Moreover, during the same decade, Robert Bork cited Coase's Nature of the Firm in his 1966 work on the Sherman Act's treatment of non-standard contracts.  In particular, Bork explained why various forms of partial integration could align the interests and incentives of the contracting parties, thereby accomplishing the same economic objectives through partial integration that economic actors might otherwise achieve via complete vertical integration.  Most famously, building on the work of Lester Telser (who had not cited Coase), Bork argued that minimum resale price maintenance and non-price restraints such as exclusive territories and location clauses could ensure that independent dealers made optimal investments in promotional effort, thereby facilitating a manufacturer's strategy of relying upon a system of independent dealers to distribute the manufacturer's product.  As previously explained on this blog, this work, along with additional work by Bork and others, convinced the Supreme Court to repudiate numerous decisions from the inhospitality era.