Nobel Prize 2016 Part I: Bengt Holmstrom

The Nobel Prize in Economics has been announced, and what a deserving prize it is: Bengt Holmstrom and Oliver Hart have won for the theory of contracts. The name of this research weblog is “A Fine Theorem”, and it would be hard to find two economists whose work is more likely to elicit such a description! Both are incredibly deserving; more than five years ago on this site, I discussed how crazy it was that Holmstrom had yet to win!. The only shock is the combination: a more natural prize would have been Holmstrom with Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson for modern applied mechanism design, and Oliver Hart with John Moore and Sandy Grossman for the theory of the firm. The contributions of Holmstrom and Hart are so vast that I’m splitting this post into two, so as to properly cover the incredible intellectual accomplishments of these two economists.

The Finnish economist Bengt Holmstrom did his PhD in operations research at Stanford, advised by Robert Wilson, and began his career at my alma mater, the tiny department of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at Northwestern’s Kellogg School. To say MEDS struck gold with their hires in this era is an extreme understatement: in 1978 and 1979 alone, they hired Holmstrom and his classmate Paul Milgrom (another Wilson student from Stanford), hired Nancy Stokey promoted Nobel laureate Roger Myerson to Associate Professor, and tenured an adviser of mine, Mark Satterthwaite. And this list doesn’t even include other faculty in the late 1970s and early 1980s like eminent contract theorist John Roberts, behavioralist Colin Camerer, mechanism designer John Ledyard or game theorist Ehud Kalai. This group was essentially put together by two senior economists at Kellogg, Nancy Schwartz and Stanley Reiter, who had the incredible foresight to realize both that applied game theory was finally showing promise of tackling first-order economic questions in a rigorous way, and that the folks with the proper mathematical background to tackle these questions were largely going unhired since they often did their graduate work in operations or mathematics departments rather than traditional economics departments. This market inefficiency, as it were, allowed Nancy and Stan to hire essentially every young scholar in what would become the field of mechanism design, and to develop a graduate program which combined operations, economics, and mathematics in a manner unlike any other place in the world.

From that fantastic group, Holmstrom’s contribution lies most centrally in the area of formal contract design. Imagine that you want someone – an employee, a child, a subordinate division, an aid contractor, or more generally an agent – to perform a task. How should you induce them to do this? If the task is “simple”, meaning the agent’s effort and knowledge about how to perform the task most efficiently is known and observable, you can simply pay a wage, cutting off payment if effort is not being exerted. When only the outcome of work can be observed, if there is no uncertainty in how effort is transformed into outcomes, knowing the outcome is equivalent to knowing effort, and hence optimal effort can be achieved via a bonus payment made on the basis of outcomes. All straightforward so far. The trickier situations, which Holmstrom and his coauthors analyzed at great length, are when neither effort nor outcomes are directly observable.

Consider paying a surgeon. You want to reward the doctor for competent, safe work. However, it is very difficult to observe perfectly what the surgeon is doing at all times, and basing pay on outcomes has a number of problems. First, the patient outcome depends on the effort of not just one surgeon, but on others in the operating room and prep table: team incentives must be provided. Second, the doctor has many ways to shift the balance of effort between reducing costs to the hospital, increasing patient comfort, increasing the quality of the medical outcome, and mentoring young assistant surgeons, so paying on the basis of one or two tasks may distort effort away from other harder-to-measure tasks: there is a multitasking problem. Third, the number of medical mistakes, or the cost of surgery, that a hospital ought expect from a competent surgeon depends on changes in training and technology that are hard to know, and hence a contract may want to adjust payments for its surgeons on the performance of surgeons elsewhere: contracts ought take advantage of relevant information when it is informative about the task being incentivized. Fourth, since surgeons will dislike risk in their salary, the fact that some negative patient outcomes are just bad luck means that you will need to pay the surgeon very high bonuses to overcome their risk aversion: when outcome measures involve uncertainty, optimal contracts will weigh “high-powered” bonuses against “low-powered” insurance against risk. Fifth, the surgeon can be incentivized either by payments today or by keeping their job tomorrow, and worse, these career concerns may cause the surgeon to waste the hospital’s money on tasks which matter to the surgeon’s career beyond the hospital.

Holmstrom wrote the canonical paper on each of these topics. His 1979 paper in the Bell Journal of Economics shows that any information which reduces the uncertainty about what an agent actually did should feature in a contract, since by reducing uncertainty, you reduce the risk premium needed to incentivize the agent to accept the contract. It might seem strange that contracts in many cases do not satisfy this “informativeness principle”. For instance, CEO bonuses are often not indexed to the performance of firms in the same industry. If oil prices rise, essentially all oil firms will be very profitable, and this is true whether or not a particular CEO is a good one. Bertrand and Mullainathan argue that this is because many firms with diverse shareholders are poorly governed!

The simplicity of contracts in the real world may have more prosaic explanations. Jointly with Paul Milgrom, the famous “multitasking” paper published in JLEO in 1991 notes that contracts shift incentives across different tasks in addition to serving as risk-sharing mechanisms and as methods for inducing effort. Since bonuses on task A will cause agents to shift effort away from hard-to-measure task B, it may be optimal to avoid strong incentives at all (just pay teachers a salary rather than a bonus based only on test performance) or to split job tasks (pay bonuses to teacher A who is told to focus only on math test scores, and pay salary to teacher B who is meant to serve as a mentor). That outcomes are generated by teams also motivates simpler contracts. Holmstrom’s 1982 article on incentives in teams, published in the Bell Journal, points out that if both my effort and yours is required to produce a good outcome, then the marginal product of our efforts are both equal to the entire value of what is produced, hence there is not enough output to pay each of us our marginal product. What can be done? Alchian and Demsetz had noticed this problem in 1972, arguing that firms exist to monitor the effort of individuals working in teams. With perfect knowledge of who does what, you can simply pay the workers a wage sufficient to make the optimal effort, then collect the residual as profit. Holmstrom notes that the monitoring isn’t the important bit: rather, even shareholder controlled firms where shareholders do no monitoring at all are useful. The reason is that shareholders can be residual claimants for profit, and hence there is no need to fully distribute profit to members of the team. Free-riding can therefore be eliminated by simply paying team members a wage of X if the team outcome is optimal, and 0 otherwise. Even a slight bit of shirking by a single agent drops their payment precipitously (which is impossible if all profits generated by the team are shared by the team), so the agents will not shirk. Of course, when there is uncertainty about how team effort transforms into outcomes, this harsh penalty will not work, and hence incentive problems may require team sizes to be smaller than that which is first-best efficient. A third justification for simple contracts is career concerns: agents work hard today to try to signal to the market that they are high quality, and do so even if they are paid a fixed wage. This argument had been made less formally by Fama, but Holmstrom (in a 1982 working paper finally published in 1999 in RESTUD) showed that this concern about the market only completely mitigates moral hazard if outcomes within a firm were fully observable to the market, or the future is not discounted at all, or there is no uncertainty about agent’s abilities. Indeed, career concerns can make effort provision worse; for example, agents may take actions to signal quality to the market which are negative for their current firm! A final explanation for simple contracts comes from Holmstrom’s 1987 paper with Milgrom in Econometrica. They argue that simple “linear” contracts, with a wage and a bonus based linearly on output, are more “robust” methods of solving moral hazard because they are less susceptible to manipulation by agents when the environment is not perfectly known. Michael Powell, a student of Holmstrom’s now at Northwestern, has a great set of PhD notes providing details of these models.

These ideas are reasonably intuitive, but the way Holmstrom answered them is not. Think about how an economist before the 1970s, like Adam Smith in his famous discussion of the inefficiency of sharecropping, might have dealt with these problems. These economists had few tools to deal with asymmetric information, so although economists like George Stigler analyzed the economic value of information, the question of how to elicit information useful to a contract could not be discussed in any systematic way. These economists would have been burdened by the fact that the number of contracts one could write are infinite, so beyond saying that under a contract of type X does not equate marginal cost to marginal revenue, the question of which “second-best” contract is optimal is extraordinarily difficult to answer in the absence of beautiful tricks like the revelation principle partially developed by Holmstrom himself. To develop those tricks, a theory of how individuals would respond to changes in their joint incentives over time was needed; the ideas of Bayesian equilibria and subgame perfection, developed by Harsanyi and Selten, were unknown before the 1960s. The accretion of tools developed by pure theory finally permitted, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an absolute explosion of developments of great use to understanding the economic world. Consider, for example, the many results in antitrust provided by Nobel winner Jean Tirole, discussed here two years ago.

Holmstrom’s work has provided me with a great deal of understanding of why innovation management looks the way it does. For instance, why would a risk neutral firm not work enough on high-variance moonshot-type R&D projects, a question Holmstrom asks in his 1989 JEBO Agency Costs and Innovation? Four reasons. First, in Holmstrom and Milgrom’s 1987 linear contracts paper, optimal risk sharing leads to more distortion by agents the riskier the project being incentivized, so firms may choose lower expected value projects even if they themselves are risk neutral. Second, firms build reputation in capital markets just as workers do with career concerns, and high variance output projects are more costly in terms of the future value of that reputation when the interest rate on capital is lower (e.g., when firms are large and old). Third, when R&D workers can potentially pursue many different projects, multitasking suggests that workers should be given small and very specific tasks so as to lessen the potential for bonus payments to shift worker effort across projects. Smaller firms with fewer resources may naturally have limits on the types of research a worker could pursue, which surprisingly makes it easier to provide strong incentives for research effort on the remaining possible projects. Fourth, multitasking suggests agent’s tasks should be limited, and that high variance tasks should be assigned to the same agent, which provides a role for decentralizing research into large firms providing incremental, safe research, and small firms performing high-variance research. That many aspects of firm organization depend on the swirl of conflicting incentives the firm and the market provide is a topic Holmstrom has also discussed at length, especially in his beautiful paper “The Firm as an Incentive System”; I shall reserve discussion of that paper for a subsequent post on Oliver Hart.

Two final light notes on Holmstrom. First, he is the source of one of my favorite stories about Paul Samuelson, the greatest economic theorist of all time. Samuelson was known for having a steel trap of a mind. At a light trivia session during a house party for young faculty at MIT, Holmstrom snuck in a question, as a joke, asking for the name of the third President of independent Finland. Samuelson not only knew the name, but apparently was also able to digress on the man’s accomplishments! Second, I mentioned at the beginning of this post the illustrious roster of theorists who once sat at MEDS. Business school students are often very hesitant to deal with formal models, partially because they lack a technical background but also because there is a trend of “dumbing down” in business education whereby many schools (of course, not including my current department at The University of Toronto Rotman!) are more worried about student satisfaction than student learning. With perhaps Stanford GSB as an exception, it is inconceivable that any school today, Northwestern included, would gather such an incredible collection of minds working on abstract topics whose applicability to tangible business questions might lie years in the future. Indeed, I could name a number of so-called “top” business schools who have nobody on their faculty who has made any contribution of note to theory! There is a great opportunity for a Nancy Schwartz or Stan Reiter of today to build a business school whose students will have the ultimate reputation for rigorous analysis of social scientific questions.

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2 thoughts on “Nobel Prize 2016 Part I: Bengt Holmstrom

  1. Ryan Lanham says:

    Reblogged this on Thinking About Technocracy.

  2. Epiphyte says:

    Samuelson was not the greatest economic theorist of all time. My friend Michelle teaches a 4th grade public school class of 30 students. She recently applied two of my economic theories to her class…

    1. voting is replaced with spending
    2. kids can choose where their taxes go

    The first theory is largely based on Coase while the second is largely based on Smith and Buchanan.

    Today the kids are using their own real money (pennies) to choose the class insect. The kids who are compensated for their preferred insect not being chosen will have to eventually pay a tax on their compensation/income. But they will be able to choose which class/school goods they spend their taxes on.

    Can you make a solid prediction about the outcome? Chances are extremely good that you’ll be unable to. Why? Largely because you don’t realize just how terrible an economist Samuelson was. He was wonderful at math but terrible at economics. Economics is all about trade. Being terrible at economics means failing to truly understand the benefit and point of trade. When you fail to truly understand the benefit and point of trade… then you fail to see all the places where trade isn’t… but should be.

    “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” – Samuelson

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