Ronald Coase: Nobel Prize winner who explored why companies exist

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Ronald Coase, who has died at the age of 102, played a key part in developing the intellectual arguments behind the market revolution that swept round the world in the 1980s.

Yet when he won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1991, it was for two articles published almost a quarter of a century apart. The first, “The Nature of the Firm”, was conceived while he was an undergraduate on a trip to America and for the first time provided a rigorous explanation of why companies exist. People created companies, said Coase, to avoid what he called “marketing costs”.

His second influential paper, “The Problem of Social Cost”, came 23 years later in 1960, and showed that the case for government intervention in the marketplace was far weaker than economists had previously thought.

Ronald Harry Coase, the son of two Post Office workers who both left school at the age of 12, was born in the London suburb of Willesden in 1910. Condemned to wear leg irons as a boy, he won a late scholarship to Kilburn Grammar School and then went to the London School of Economics. There Arnold Plant, professor of commerce, introduced him to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and helped him win a travelling scholarship to the US to investigate the structure of American industry.

In classical economic theory, agents moved effortlessly towards equilibrium in a frictionless world. In reality, goods are bought and sold in marketplaces – sometimes literal, sometimes virtual – and economic life is dominated by corporations. Classical theories ignored or looked through these institutional arrangements. Economists saw only the investors, employees and customers who obtained, without cost or intermediation, the information they needed to do the business of the market economy.

The need to resolve that tension between model and reality determined the direction of Coase’s career. His key insight was that the costs of making transactions define the nature and shape of economic institutions. In a lecture on his return in 1932, Coase argued that the boundaries of the modern company were determined by the relative costs of market organisation and hierarchical direction.

For example, an assembly line demanded hierarchy because the costs of bargaining between each successive stage of production would be too great. A wheel fits only on an axle for which it has been designed: command and control is superior to markets in these idiosyncratic transactions. But General Motors, for instance, might buy in its tyres because the savings from competitive tendering would be greater than the benefits of ownership. Half a century later, “make” versus “buy” decisions would be routine case studies in business schools. Coase was the first to see how this issue defined the shape of the modern corporation.

Coase returned to Britain first as a lecturer at Dundee and then to LSE, where he published his ideas in 1937. In the same year, he married Marian Ruth Hartung. The couple had no children.

“The Nature of the Firm” made little initial impact. The second world war broke out soon after and Coase joined the talented group of young economists who were recruited to help the organisation of war production. After the war, Coase returned to the LSE and in the 1950s he published “Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly”, which attacked the position then held by the BBC.

A few years later, ITV was set up but Coase went on to advocate radio spectrum sales on both sides of the Atlantic. He believed that if radio spectrum were treated as property to be sold to the highest bidder, it would be used more efficiently. It took many years for the idea to be adopted as policy in either Britain or the US.

From 1951, he spent some years in relative obscurity studying public utilities at the University of Buffalo. This led to a fuller reflection on the ways in which institutions determined economic outcomes and prompted Coase to write the article that made his reputation.

After the war, Coase returned to the LSE and in the 1950s he published ‘Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly’, which attacked the position then held by the BBC

On the surface, “The Problem of Social Cost” describes a new approach to the externalities that had troubled an earlier generation of economists – the smoking chimneys and suchlike, when production interfered with others. Yet the amount of smoke would be the same whether the chimney owner had to compensate his neighbours for the damage or the neighbours bribed the factory to restrain its output.

This seemed to have a startling consequence. The reason for imposing liability on the factory owner is not justice – the polluter should pay – but efficiency: it is cheaper for the owner to pay the victims than for those who suffer to organise themselves to negotiate with the owner. Legal liability rules should be assessed not for their fairness but for the relative costs they impose.

This approach, drawn from his work, has wide-ranging implications. Market forces drive not only the transactions undertaken within a framework of economic institutions but also the design of economic institutions themselves. If market outcomes are generally efficient, a presumption of efficiency applies not just to the outcomes of the market economy but also to the social framework from which these outcomes emerge – at least at the micro level.

In 1964, Coase was appointed to a chair at Chicago, where he spent the remainder of his career. “Institutions matter” has belatedly become a mantra of economists. More than any other figure in economic thought, he demonstrated how and why that was so.

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