Oliver Williamson, Nobel Honoree

I was delighted to hear that Oliver Williamson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (shared with Elinor Ostrom). Oliver Williamson is recognized for his contribution to the field of Transaction Cost Economics, building on the path-breaking work of scholars like Ronald Coase.

Transaction Cost Economics is a central theory in the field of Strategy. It addresses questions about why firms exist in the first place (i.e., to minimize transaction costs), how firms define their boundaries, and how they ought to govern operations.

In Transaction Cost Economics, the starting point is the individual transaction (the synapse between the buyer and the seller). The question then becomes: Why are some transactions performed within firms rather than in the market, as the neoclassical view prescribes.

The answer, not surprisingly, is because markets break down.

As a consequence of human cognitive limitations, coupled with the costs associated with transacting, the basic assumptions associated with efficient markets (e.g., anonymous actors, atomistic actors, rational actors, perfect information, homogeneous goods, the absence of liquidity constraints) fail to hold. For these reasons it is often more advantageous to structure transactions within firms. And this is why firms are not just ubiquitous in our society, but also worthy of study in their own right. This contrasts with the typical view of firms in neoclassical economic theory as, at worst, a market aberration that ought not exist, and at best, a black box production function.

Williamson’s contributions to the field of Transaction Cost Economics complement, and extend, those of Coase. First, Williamson started with an explicitly behavioral assumption of human behavior (bounded rationality). Second, he recognized that transacting parties sometimes behave opportunistically and take advantage of their counterparties. Finally, he identified features of transactions (e.g., specificity, uncertainty, frequency) that cause markets to fail; and hence, are likely to lead certain transactions to be organized within firms (hierarchies) rather than markets.

I was pleased to see Oliver Williamson recognized not just because of my inherent intellectual bias — my research has drawn on, and contributed to, the field of Transaction Cost Economics and I have worked with students of Williamson (see my research page for details) — but also because of what his selection implies for the broader field of economics. It implies that the field is moving in the direction of greater inclusion of economic perspectives that are based more on behavioral theories (see Krugman on the Future of Economics).

It was also fun to watch establishment economists make sense of the selection (see the Economists View post for some perspective). For example, Steven Leavitt writes:

When I was a graduate student at MIT back in the early 1990’s, there was a Nobel Prize betting pool every year. Three years in a row, Oliver Williamson was my choice. At the time, his research was viewed as a hip, iconoclastic contribution to economics — something that was talked about by economists, but that students were not actually trying to emulate (and probably would have been actively discouraged from had they tried to do so). What’s interesting is that in the ensuing 15 years, it seems to me that economists have talked less and less about Williamson’s research, at least in the circles in which I run.

MY COMMENT: I think Leavitt underestimates the impact of Williamson’s work because he is neither a Strategy scholar, nor is he in a Strategy or Management department. Go to any Strategy or Management department and you will find oodles of researchers (and doctoral students) working on Transaction Cost problems. It is a dominant paradigm.

Paul Krugman (in his post An Institutional Economics Prize) writes:

The way to think about this prize is that it’s an award for institutional economics, or maybe more specifically New Institutional Economics.

Neoclassical economics basically assumes that the units of economic decision-making are a given, and focuses on how they interact in markets. It’s not much good at explaining the creation of these units — at explaining, in particular, why some activities are carried out by large corporations, while others aren’t. That’s obviously an interesting question, and in many cases an important one.

…Oliver Williamson’s work underlies a tremendous amount of modern economic thinking; I know it because of the attempts to model multinational corporations, almost all of which rely to some degree on his ideas.

MY COMMENT: Krugman gets it partially right, but he does a lot of handwaving with respect to Williamson’s specific contributions. But with all due respect, he certainly makes no claim to be a Strategy scholar. He is right in the sense that the award speaks volumes about New Institutional Economics, broadly defined. However, in the case of Williamson, the specific contribution is to the field of Transaction Cost Economics. Moreover, the contributions of Williamson’s work extend far beyond the field of international business (or international strategy), but I agree that Transaction Cost Economics has been influential in those fields as well.

Nevertheless, my congratulations to Oliver Williamson, and to his students (many of whom I know well), who have long carried the torch for this important, yet underappreciated, branch of economics.

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2 Responses to Oliver Williamson, Nobel Honoree

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  2. Transaction Cost theory is poorly recognised both in the acedemic world and the real economy.

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