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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter November 6, 2001

Incomplete Contracts Theories of the Firm and Comparative Corporate Governance

  • William W. Bratton and Joseph A. McCahery

This article draws on key models of monitoring and blockholding articulated in the incomplete contracts theory of the firm. Under incomplete contracts theory, different governance systems have incentive structures that entail different tradeoffs—tradeoffs between ownership concentration and liquidity, between monitoring and management initiative, and between private rent-seeking and activity benefiting shareholders as a group. The tradeoffs delimit opportunities for productive cross-reference. More specifically, blockholder systems, such as those in Europe, subsidize monitoring by permitting blockholders to reap private benefits of control through self-dealing and insider trading. Market systems, such as those in the United States and Britain, regulate such private rent-seeking toward the end of maintaining an institutional framework that supports diffuse share ownership and liquid trading markets. It follows that a legal framework conducive to blockholding may be ill-equipped to foster dispersed equity ownership and thick trading markets and that a legal framework conducive to liquid trading markets may have properties that discourage blockholding. This gives rise to questions for law reform agendas on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, proponents ask for deregulation of controls on institutional investors, looking to encourage blockholding and more effective monitoring. In Europe, proponents ask for stronger securities regulation, looking to encourage deeper trading markets. This article suggests that each reform program may lead to disappointing results because neither assures conforming adjustments to the pertinent actors’ incentives. Alternatively, strict reforms that materially change prevailing incentive patterns could perversely destabilize workable (if imperfect) arrangements without assuring the appearance of more effective alternatives.

Published Online: 2001-11-6

©2011 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston

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