The Institutional Truth of Transaction Costs

Since Adam Smith’s example of the pin factory, economists have never been able to produce a satisfactory theory of the industrial firm. They’ve thought of it as a black box, expressed it as a production function involving such illuminating variables as price and quantity, and they’ve reduced it to the agency relationship falsely claiming managers to be the agents of shareholders (see other postings on this site). This inadequacy may be part of the reason why, despite Adam Smith, mainstream economists give markets pride of place over the firm.

Belief in the extreme power of market forces, so long as they were free from regulation or any other form of interference, led to the curious belief that the market could produce any item at some cost: the costs of transactions in the market. Only if a firm could produce cheaper than the cost of market transactions, would the firm be justified in production. This fertile thread of economic theory, originated in an article by Coase in 1937, but was developed in the 1960s by a group led by Williamson – last year’s joint Nobel laureate. It challenged the legitimacy of managerial decision makers, arguing the power of market forces to decide.

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The Utility of Economics

The problem with economics is that it sometimes gives the impression of being practically useful. As an academic subject its great virtue is in training the mind, a component of what Newman referred to as a liberal education, in the same way as latin used to be. For some time the mind training role of latin appeared to be being taken over by computer programming. That had the same hard, rule-based logic, and for most people who, three decades ago or more, learned Fortran or C and their various derivatives, there was the same lack of practical utility. Now, that role has been usurped by the study of economics.

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Breaking up the Banks

The little UK bank reporting season is over. £15Bn profits have been reported. Bonuses are being calculated. The time they took us all over the brink is becoming a distant memory, along with the ‘too big to fail’ mantra. Sir John Vickers’ commission on banking regulation won’t report for another twelve months and by then the boot will be firmly on the other foot. Government will need the bank’s profits to push share prices up so the public holdings can be disposed of at a profit, or at least at not too big a loss. It will be business as usual, at least till the next time.

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CBI's faux call for tougher takeover rules

Almost every empirical study of the value of takeovers indicates that overall there is no gain; the acquirer doesn’t benefit and the overall economy usually loses out. The only ones who gain are the shareholders of the acquired company, and in cases like the Tomkins sell out currently going through, its top management whose pay off is really nothing more or less than a bribe. This is in contrast with ordinary employees who usually face an immediate cull as well as a long term loss.

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