2014 Nobel Prize in economics: Jean Tirole

By Paul Walker 14/10/2014


A number of people seem more excited by this award than me, see for example, A Fine Theorem and Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

Cowen does mention Tirole’s survey article with Holmstrom on the theory of the firm which is well worth reading even if a few years old now. In a survey paper of mine on the theory of privatisation I say this about a paper by Laffont and Tirole (Jean-Jacques Laffont and Jean Tirole (1991). ‘Privatization and Incentives’, Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, 7 (Special Issue) [Papers from the Conference on the New Science of Organization, January 1991]: 84-105.):

In the Laffont and Tirole (1991) model a firm is assumed to be producing a public good with a technology that requires investment by the firm’s manager. In the case of a public firm this investment can be diverted by the government to serve social ends. For example, the return on investment in a network could be reduced by the government if it were to allow ex post access to the general population. Such an action may be socially optimal but would expropriate part of the firm’s investment. A rational expectation of such an expropriation would reduce the incentives of a public firm’s manager to make the required investment. For a private firm, the manager’s incentives to invest are better given that both the firm’s owners and the manager are interested in profit maximisation. The cost of private ownership is that the firm must deal with two masters who have conflicting objectives: shareholders wish to maximise profits while the government purses economic efficiency. Both groups have incomplete knowledge about the firm’s cost structure and have to offer incentive schemes to induce the manager to act in accordance with their interests. Obviously the game here is a multi-principal game which dilutes the incentives and yields low-powered managerial incentive schemes and low managerial rents. Each principal fails internalise the effects of contracting on the other principal and provides socially too few incentives to the firm’s management. The added incentive for the managers of a private firm to invest is countered by the low powered managerial incentive schemes that the private firm’s managers face. The net effect of these two insights is ambiguous with regard to the relative cost efficiency of the public and private firms. Laffont and Tirole can not identify conditions under which privatisation is better than state ownership.

Cowen goes on to say,

It’s an excellent and well-deserved pick. One point is that some other economists, such as Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, may be disappointed they were not joint picks, this would have been the time to give them the prize too, so it seems their chances have gone down.

Hart and Holmstrom’s chances may have gone up since they can now be given for their, separate and joint, work on different aspects of the theory of the firm.