The Firm as a Subeconomy

42 Pages Posted: 10 May 1999

See all articles by Bengt R. Holmström

Bengt R. Holmström

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

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Date Written: October 1998


The paper explores the economic role of the firm in a market economy. The analysis begins with a discussion and critique of the property rights approach to the theory of the firm as exposited in the recent work by Hart and Moore ("Property Rights and the Nature of the Firm"). It is argued that the Hart-Moore model, taken literally, can only explain why individuals own assets, but not why firms own assets. In particular, the logic of the model suggests that each asset should be free standing in order to provide maximal flexibility for the design of individual incentives. These implications run counter to fact. One of the key features of the modern firm is that it owns essentially all the productive assets that it employs. Employees rarely own any assets; they only contribute human capital. Why is the ownership of assets clustered in firms? The paper outlines an answer based on the notion that control over physical assets gives control over contracting rights to those assets. Metaphorically, the firm is viewed as a miniature economy, an "island" economy, in which asset ownership conveys the CEO the power to define the "rules of the game", that is, the ability to restructure the incentives of those that accept to do business on (or with) the island. The desire to regulate trade in this fashion stems from contractual externalities characteristic of imperfect information environments. The inability to regulate all trade through a single firm stems from the value of exit rights as an incentive instrument and a tool to discipline the abuse of power.

JEL Classification: L2, D2

Suggested Citation

Holmström, Bengt R., The Firm as a Subeconomy (October 1998). Available at SSRN: or

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