Business Outsourcing and the Agency Cost Problem

46 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2006 Last revised: 23 Jun 2010

See all articles by George S. Geis

George S. Geis

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: August 4, 2006


Why has business outsourcing increased so rapidly over the past decade? The question is important for corporate law scholars because it raises foundational issues underlying the theory of the firm. Indeed, the decision to pool resources under centralized control presents a fundamental tension between the benefits of scale and the dangers of unchecked managerial discretion. The location of a firm's borders - and thus the extent of outsourcing - can be viewed as an equilibrium of these competing effects.

The conventional explanation for the rise in business outsourcing is that falling interaction costs have changed this balance by opening new markets where firms can source economic inputs for less. This Article offers a second account, however, for the outsourcing phenomenon - one that is rooted in agency theory. Like many other economic relationships, outsourcing projects generate agency risk because a vendor makes decisions that affect the wealth of the outsourcing firm.

This Article argues that business outsourcing has thrived in recent years not only because globalization has unlocked inexpensive production markets, but also because it is becoming easier for firms to monitor and prevent the agency costs of outsourcing. Drawing upon a detailed analysis of outsourcing contracts, it explores several strategies to minimize agency costs - shedding new light on the structure and terms of a typical outsourcing project. It then contends that the same forces that are opening new markets are also making it economical for firms to mitigate outsourcing agency risk. Taken together, this work adds another important, but previously neglected, context for understanding the essential tradeoffs that arise when economic ownership is divorced from control.

Keywords: Business Outsourcing, Contracts, Agency Costs, Theory of the Firm, Corporate Law, Alliances and Partnerships, International Trade

JEL Classification: K12, K22, L11, L14, L22

Suggested Citation

Geis, George S., Business Outsourcing and the Agency Cost Problem (August 4, 2006). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 82, No. 3, 2007, Available at SSRN: or

George S. Geis (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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