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Institutional Foundations of Impersonal Exchange: Theory and Policy of Contractual Registries Hardcover – August 24, 2012
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(P.J. Hill, Wheaton College)
About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
The important work of Benito Arruñada takes a fresh look at these issues. We all know that the Washington Consensus promotes deregulation, but it also defends strong legal security for property rights (understood in a nontechnical way, that is, both rights in rem and rights in personam) in the tradition of Coase, Williamson and North. In his book, Arruñada convincingly shows that certain simplifications of procedures and some forms of de-formalization actually hurt important safeguards. In other words, there could be an intrinsic and convoluted trade-off between the popularized programs of administrative simplification and adequate legal certainty. Eliminating certain formalisms might save some apparent costs in the immediate, but augment considerably transaction costs in time, therefore damaging the proper functioning of markets.Read more ›
Even more importantly, the book shifts the unit of analysis in the theory of the firm from personal to impersonal exchanges. From Coase (1937, 1960) and Williamson (1979) to Grossman and Hart (1986), Holmstrom and Milgrom (1994), and others, the economic theories of the firm have treated contracts as personal exchanges, with little analytic distinction between phyisical and legal persons. This has led to Alchian and Demsetz's (1972) famous definition of the firm as a "nexus of contracts".
By focusing on how hidden "originative" contracts make the consequences of present contracts uncertain, and on how registering contracts ex ante can reduce the uncertainty of good-faith acquirers of rights, Arruñada's book moves an important step towards an economic theory of the firm as a legal person. In that perspective, the nexus of contracts we call "firm" differs from a similar nexus of market contracts because, being the firm registered, external parties can contract with it without fearing that previous "internal" contracts will dilute their rights. In this sense, one could say that ex ante registration marks the boundary between firms and markets.
For example, a first extension of the theories proposed by professor Arruñada could be made by examining the functioning of the registers that collect information on the status and capacity of persons. A second field that should probably benefit from professor Arruñada's achievements is that of public registers that operate at a transnational level and established by international treaties. In particular, in this second case, the reference is obviously to the Cape Town convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment which will, and -- to some extent -- already has, resulted in the creation of different registers for the registrations of security interests for Aircrafts, Railway Rolling Stock, and Space Assets. It will be important to test in what measure the solutions adopted for these registers are consistent with the results of Arruñada's analysis.
Since the 1970′s economic theorists have understood that information asymmetries between parties who write contracts are a key source of inefficiencies in exchange. Since then, a vast literature has developed exploring this idea from many different angles. Nevertheless, two key features usually appear. First, the set of parties who write contracts all observe each other, know they are contracting with each other, and (with some exceptions) observe the terms of the contracts agreed. Second, the information asymmetries are assumed to be a fixed, exogenous feature of relationships.
Benito's book convincingly shows that both of these limit our understanding of trading frictions in the real world. A key insight is that, in addition to his "type" or "action" (to use the language of contract theory), the formal contracts that an economic agent has written with others may be unobservable. After reading the book, it became clear to me that this dimension of non-observability is just as important for generating market failure as others. The second, and intimately related, insight is that the degree of non-observability of contractual rights depends on public institutions, in particular registration systems.Read more ›