Cooperation and exchange among individuals often organize in firms rather than adhering to market institutions. This anomaly of market systems can be explained through what Oliver Williamson calls “Transaction Cost Economics.” Transaction costs are defined as the “costs of running the economic system” (Williamson 18). Similar to friction in a physical system, transaction costs may be small compared to other costs such encountered by market players, but basing entire models on a ‘frictionless’ system is unrealistic. It is these transaction costs explain the development of firms and hierarchies rather than contracting by market forces.
There are three limitations to a market system: bounded rationality, opportunism and asset specificity. Bounded rationality describes the limitations of knowledge by market players. Whereas they will act rationally in a market situation, they are not always presented with all the information required to make a rational decision. Opportunism arises when certain market players are unwilling to accept the status quo and believe they have the ability to improve their position. Finally, asset specificity refers to certain players having technical and contractual inseparabilites. An example of asset specificity is an accounting firm with a long term contract with a given company. After the long term contract expires, the accounting firm would be first in line to renew their contract with the given company. There may be other accounting firms in the market that could also offer similar accounting services, but the company will likely keep its original accounting firm. Switching would incur transaction costs such as transferring of files over to the new accounting firm, legal fees associate...
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... asset specificity can no longer be ignored as in classic market models. A highly trained employee is a very specific asset since a firm would incur great costs in training a novice employee and bringing the novice’s productivity up to that of a highly trained employee. Thus, a firm could not easily replace the highly trained employee as the case would be in a market situation. Thus non market contracts are forged to keep the specific asset that is high human capital.
Williamson and Coase use transaction cost economics to explain why labor is often organized in firms rather than relying on market institutions. The increasing effect of asset specificity on the labor market is a key validation for their analysis. Firms are more efficient than market institutions in that they save on transaction costs associated with writing, signing and enforcing contracts.
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