Competition and productivity

By Paul Walker 28/08/2014

An obvious and important question in industrial economics is does competition raise productivity and if so, through what mechanism? In a 2010 working paper, Does Competition Raise Productivity Through Improving Management Quality?, John Van Reenen sets out to answer that question. He writes,

I discuss recent empirical evidence from both large-scale databases and specific industries which suggests that tougher competition does indeed raise productivity and one of the main mechanisms is through improving management practices. To establish this, I report on new research seeking to quantify management. I relate this to theoretical perspectives on the economics of competition and management, arguing that management should be seen at least in part as a transferable technology. A range of recent econometric studies suggest that (i) competition increases management quality and (ii) improved management quality boosts productivity.

Thus Van Reenen’s argument is that competition does indeed increase productivity and a major mechanism for this is via improved management practices. He says that management is a transferable technology and that competition fosters the adoption of better management practices through both selecting out the badly managed firms (reallocation) and giving incumbent firms stronger incentives to improve their management practices. He argues that this perspective is supported by a range of new evidence both from new ways of measuring management and from more robust forms of identifying the causal impact of competition changes on productivity outcomes.

This has important implications for a small trading country like New Zealand. Given our small internal market how do we increase competition? One way is to open our markets to foreign trade and investors. Yes, allow foreigners to trade here and to buy assets here. Yes I know, certain political parties will not be too pleased with this idea.

Allowing foreign companies to trade here increases competition in our market in general and thus forces improvement in terms of management on local firms. But as my previous posting on the example of France showed foreign ownership can also improve a firm’s productivity. Foreign investors are more likely to takeover firms that are currently under-performing and thus are open to productivity improvements. Such investors are more likely to buy firms that aren’t working, right now, as well as they have in the past. The targets of foreign buyouts normally had experienced substantial productivity decline in the years prior to the foreign takeover. The foreign buyers then use their expertise, including improved management practices, to correct things and thus increase productivity. Of course this performance improvement puts additional pressure on other firms to up their game as well.

Thus foreign trade and ownership can both improve productivity by increasing competition in the local market and thus putting pressure on local firms to improve the quality of their management.