The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 2016 given to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström

The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 2016 given to Contract theory

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Sveriges Riksbank Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 2016 in Memory of Alfred Nobel to Oliver Hart (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA) and Bengt Holmström (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA) “for their contributions to contract theory”.

Modern economies are held together by innumerable contracts. The new theoretical tools created by Hart and Holmström are valuable to the understanding of real-life contracts and institutions, as well as potential pitfalls in contract design.

Why they have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 2016?

Society’s many contractual relationships include those between shareholders and top executive management, an insurance company and car owners, or a public authority and its suppliers. As such relationships typically entail conflicts of interest, contracts must be properly designed to ensure that the parties take mutually beneficial decisions.

This year’s laureates have developed contract theory, a comprehensive framework for analysing many diverse issues in contractual design, like performance-based pay for top executives, deductibles and co-pays in insurance, and the privatisation of public-sector activities.

In the late 1970s, Bengt Holmström demonstrated how a principal (e.g., a company’s shareholders) should design an optimal contract for an agent (the company’s CEO), whose action is partly unobserved by the principal. Holmström’s informativeness principle stated precisely how this contract should link the agent’s pay to performance-relevant information. Using the basic principal-agent model, he showed how the optimal contract carefully weighs risks against incentives.

In later work, Holmström generalised these results to more realistic settings, namely: when employees are not only rewarded with pay, but also with potential promotion; when agents expend effort on many tasks, while principals observe only some dimensions of performance; and when individual members of a team can free-ride on the efforts of others.

In the mid-1980s, Oliver Hart made fundamental contributions to a new branch of contract theory that deals with the important case of incomplete contracts. Because it is impossible for a contract to specify every eventuality, this branch of the theory spells out optimal allocations of control rights: which party to the contract should be entitled to make decisions in which circumstances? Hart’s findings on incomplete contracts have shed new light on the ownership and control of businesses and have had a vast impact on several fields of economics, as well as political science and law. His research provides us with new theoretical tools for studying questions such as which kinds of companies should merge, the proper mix of debt and equity financing, and when institutions such as schools or prisons ought to be privately or publicly owned.

Through their initial contributions, Hart and Holmström launched contract theory as a fertile field of basic research. Over the last few decades, they have also explored many of its applications. Their analysis of optimal contractual arrangements lays an intellectual foundation for designing policies and institutions in many areas, from bankruptcy legislation to political constitutions.

For these contributions in contract theory, Hart and Holmström have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 2016.

 

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