Complexity, Flexibility and the Make-or-Buy Decision

American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 92, no. 2 (2002): 433-437
Complexity, Flexibility and the Make-or-Buy Decision
Steve Tadelis
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Abstract

65 years ago, Ronald Coase (1937) asked what determines whether production will be organized in a firm or through the market, later coined the "make-or-buy" decision. This question was put center stage by Oliver Williamson (1975, 1985) who further developed Transaction Costs Economics(TCE), arguing that incomplete contracts and specific relationships overshadowed by opportunism, asymmetric information and bounded rationality, will lead vertical processes to integrate.

Benjamin Klein et al. (1978) enhanced TCE with the "hold-up" problem: in the face of incomplete contracts, specificity and opportunistic behavior, integration can help promote ex ante investment incentives. Sanford Grossman and Oliver Hart (1986) (followed by Hart and John Moore (1990)) developed the Property Rights Theory (PRT) of the firm (See Hart, 1995).

PRT formally model the hold-up problem, offered a precise definition of integration via ownership and residual control rights, and analyzed the costs and benefits of integration in a unified manner. However, PRT narrowed the focus of the make-or-buy question on one type of transaction cost - the hold up problem.

This paper focuses attention on a different kind of transaction cost: haggling and friction due to ex post changes and adaptations when contracts are incomplete. The level of a transaction's complexity, which is associated with contractual incompleteness, will be the shifting parameter that determines both incentive schemes and integration decisions.

This focus is motivated by a careful examination of procurement decisions in industry, and has strong empirical content since the exogenous shifter (complexity) seems easier to measure than specificity.

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Canary in the e-Commerce Coal Mine: Detecting and Predicting Poor Experiences Using Buyer-to-Seller Messages

Dimitriy Masterov, Uwe Mayer, Steve Tadelis

Reputation and feedback systems in online marketplaces are often biased, making it difficult to ascertain the quality of sellers. We use post-transaction, buyer-to-seller message traffic to detect signals of unsatisfactory transactions on eBay. We posit that a message sent after the item was paid for serves as a reliable indicator that the buyer may be unhappy with that purchase, particularly when the message included words associated with a negative experience. The fraction of a seller's message traffic that was negative predicts whether a buyer who transacts with this seller will stop purchasing on eBay, implying that platforms can use these messages as an additional signal of seller quality.