2 U.S.-based professors win Nobel in economics
STOCKHOLM — Two U.S.-based professors won the Nobel Prize in economics on Monday for studying how to best design contracts, work that sheds light on when it makes sense to give a CEO a bonus or privatize public services such as schools, hospitals and prisons.
British-born Oliver Hart of Harvard University and Finnish economist Bengt Holmstrom of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will share the $930,000 award for their contributions to contract theory.
That’s a field of research that deals with incentives and risks involved in contracts drawn up between companies and employees, banks and lenders or insurance agents and their customers.
In research in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Hart and Holmstrom created “new theoretical tools” that shed light on how contracts help people and companies deal with conflicting interests and the “potential pitfalls” that occur when contracts are poorly designed, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
“These kinds of insights into how we should design contracts are very important because we don’t want to give the wrong incentives to people,” said Nobel committee member Tomas Sjostrom. “Wedon’t want to reward them for things that they were not responsible for. We want to reward the right thing.”
Hart, 68, is a Londonborn U.S. citizen who has taught at Harvard since 1993. Holmstrom, 67, is an academic from Finland who used to serve on the board of the country’s mobile phone company, Nokia.
Holmstrom said he felt Oliver Hart, 68, is a professor at Harvard University. very lucky and grateful.
“I certainly did not expect it, at least at this time, so I was very surprised and very happy, of course,” he said.
In the 1970s, Holmstrom showed how a principal, for example a company’s shareholders, should design an optimal contract for an agent, such as the CEO. His “informativeness principle” showed how the contract should link the agent’s pay to information relevant to his or her performance, carefully weighing risks against incentives, the academy said.
Pay packages, for example, should avoid holding CEOs responsible, or rewarding them, for events beyond their control.
“You don’t want to reward the CEO because the S&P 500 (stock index) has gone up 20 percent,” said Patrick Bolton of Columbia University’s School of Business, who studied under Hart and has written a textbook on the economics of contracts. “You want to reward the CEO when his company outperforms the S&P.”
Bolton described Hart as a rigorous but open-minded thinker who challenges his students’ ideas.
Holmstrom said his incentive to study contract theory came before he was an academic, when he was working for a company in Bengt Holmstrom, 67, is a professor at MIT. the 1970s that tried to use computers to figure out how to make strategic plans.
“That’s when I realized that the issue wasn’t really about the difficulty of coming up with the best plans,” he said. “The bigger issue was also to create incentives for people to give the right information that is needed for these plans and incentivize them in general.”
Hart made fundamental contributions to a new branch of contract theory in the mid-1980s. His findings on “incomplete contracts” shed new light on the ownership and control of businesses, the academy said.
“His research provides us with theoretical tools for studying questions such as which kinds of companies should merge, the proper mix of debt and equity financing, and which institutions such as schools or prisons ought to be privately or publicly owned,” the academy said.
It cited a 1997 article co-authored by Hart that highlighted how private contractors have stronger incentives for investing in both quality and cost reduction. The authors argued that the incentives for cost reduction sometimes are too strong and expressed particular concern about privately run prisons, the academy said.