“Contractability and the Design of Research Agreements,” J. Lerner & U. Malmendier (2010)

Outside research has (as we discussed yesterday) begun to regain prominence as a firm strategy. This is particularly so in biotech: the large drug firms generally do not do the basic research that leads to new products. Rather, they contract this out to independent research firms, then handle the development, licensing and marketing in-house. But such contracts are tough. Not only can do I have trouble writing an enforceable contract that conditions on the effort exerted by the research firm, but the fact that research firms have other projects, and also like to do pure science for prestige reasons, means that they are likely to take my money and use it to fund projects which are not entirely the most preferred of the drug company.

We are in luck: economic theory has a broad array of models of contracting under multitasking worries. Consider the following model of Lerner and Malmendier. The drug firm pays some amount to set up a contract. The research firm then does some research. The drug firm observes the effort of the researcher, who either worked on exactly what the drug company prefers, or on a related project which throws off various side inventions. After the research is performed, the research firm is paid. With perfect ability to contract on effort, this is an easy problem: pay the research firm only if they exert effort on the projects the drug company prefers. When the research project is “tell me whether this compound has this effect”, it might be possible to write such a contract. When the research project is “investigate the properties of this class of compounds and how they might relate to diseases of the heart”, surely no such contract is possible. In that case, the optimal contract may be just to let the research firm work on the broader project it prefers, because at least then the fact that the research firm gets spillovers means that the drug firm can pay the researcher less money. This is clearly second-best.

Can we do better? What about “termination contracts”? After effort is observed, but before development is complete, the drug firm can terminate the contract or not. Payments in the contract can certainly condition on termination. How about the following contract: the drug firm terminates if the research firm works on the broader research project, and it takes the patent rights to the side inventions. Here, if the research firm deviates and works on its own side projects, the drug company gets to keep the patents for those side projects, hence the research firm won’t do such work. And the drug firm further prefers the research firm to work on the assigned project; since termination means that development is not completed, the drug firm won’t just falsely claim that effort was low in order to terminate and seize the side project patents (indeed, on equilibrium path, there are few side patents to seize since the research firm is actually working on the correct project!). The authors show that the contract described here is always optimal if a conditional termination contract is used at all.

Empirically, what does this mean? If I write a research contract for more general research, I should expect more termination rights to be reserved. Further, the liquidity constraint of the research firms matter; if the drug firm could make the research firm pay it back after termination, it would do so, and we could again achieve the first best. So I should expect termination rights to show up particularly for undercapitalized research firms. Lerner and Malmendier create a database from contract data collected by a biotech consulting firm, and show that both of these predictions appear to be borne out. I read these results as in the style of Maskin and Tirole; even when I can’t fully specify all the states of the world in a contract, I can still do a good bit of conditioning.

2008 Working paper (IDEAS version). Final paper in AER 2010. Malmendier will certainly be a factor in the upcoming Clark medal discussion, as she turns 40 this year. Problematically, Nick Bloom (who, says his CV, did his PhD part time?!) also turns 40, and both absolutely deserve the prize. If I were a betting man, I would wager that the just-published-in-the-QJE Does Management Matter in the Third World paper will be the one that puts Bloom over the top, as it’s really the best development paper in many years. That said, I am utterly confused that Finkelstein won last year given that Malmendier and Bloom are both up for their last shot this year. Finkelstein is a great economist, no doubt, but she works in a very similar field to Malmendier, and Malmendier trumps her by any conceivable metric (citations, top cited papers, overall impact, etc.). I thought they switched the Clark Medal to an every-year affair just to avoid such a circumstance, such as when Athey, List and Melitz were all piled up in 2007.

I’m curious what a retrospective Clark Medal would look like, taking into account only research that was done as of the voting year, but allowing us to use our knowledge of the long-run impact of that research. Since 2001, Duflo 2010 and Acemoglu 2005 are locks. I think Rabin keeps his in 2001. Guido Imbens takes Levitt’s spot in 2003. List takes 2007, with Melitz and Athey just missing out (though both are supremely deserving!). Saez keeps 2009. Malmendier takes 2011. Bloom takes 2012. Raj Chetty takes 2013 – still young, but already an obvious lock to win. What’s interesting about this list is just how dominant young folks have been in micro (especially empirical and applied theory); these are essentially the best people working in that area, whereas macro and metrics are still by and large dominated by an older generation.

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