Coase was the last “classical” economist. His style is closer to Marshall than to Samuelson. He asked deep questions and proposed simple but deep answers without using maths. So, a certain style of doing economics passes away with him.
The work of his I am most familiar with concerns the theory of the firm: Why are some transactions mediated through markets while others take place within firms? Suppose Microsoft and Nokia have to work together to supply phones. MS can own human capital that generates software, Nokia can generate the hardware and they can exist as separate firms and trade. Or MS can produce the end software/hardware product and employ Nokia workers in an integrated firm. Coase’s point is that if there are no transactions costs, there is property-right neutrality. Both institutions should generate the same joint surplus and it does not matter whether they are integrated or not. People often stop there and that is all they know about the “Coase Theorem”. But in fact, Coase’s second point is that property right neutrality is crazy hence there must be transactions costs and we must study these as well as the usual costs of production we normally invoke. Once we have a good understanding of transactions costs, we will understand why some transactions take place through firms and other through markets.
The downside of having a classical style is that no-one really understands what you mean. First, there was controversy about the Coase Theorem itself – was it in fact a theorem? Coase never called it that (I think it was Stigler who coined the phrase) and Samuelson though it was wrong. But, I think by now we do believe it is a theorem and the property right neutrality obtains for transferable utility (MasColell, Whinston and Green has a simple argument). But what are these pesky transactions costs that determine the boundary of the firm? There we have no consensus. One leading theory invokes costs of haggling ex post if two firms are not integrated (Wiliamson got the Nobel Prize for this theory). The other says there are no costs of haggling ex post and bargaining in efficient but there is a hold up problem in bargaining as surplus is split. Knowing this firms underinvest ex ante. The allocation of property rights affects the ex post division of surplus and hence this leads to a theory of optimal property rights (this theory has been developed by Oliver Hart with his co-authors Sandy Grossman and John Moore (GHM)).
The counterargument to Williamson’s theory is typically that if haggling generates transactions costs, we should see vertical integration and no outsourcing. No interior solutions! The counterargument to GHM is more esoteric. It turns out that there are contracting solutions that are consistent with typical GHM solutions and resolve the hold-up problem. In some sense, the Coase Theorem goes through in GHM models.
So what can we learn from the Nokia and MS merger? It seems they are looking for a Ballmer replacement who is working at Nokia. And there are intellectual property issues:
Mr. Ballmer said Microsoft and Nokia had not been as agile separately as they would be jointly, citing how development could be slowed down when intellectual property rights were held by two different companies.
But also from the same NYT article:
Large acquisitions are fraught with peril, especially in the technology business, where there are challenges to integrating employees from different backgrounds into a coherent whole.
First, Coase is right – there are transactions costs that destroy property right neutrality. Second, both Williamson and GHM theories are consistent with the facts. Maybe ex post efficient trades are not occurring because of haggling over MS’s and Nokia’s intellectual property. Or knowing that surplus will be extracted by the other party ex post given its monopoly power over its patents, neither firms is fully invested in the joint venture.
So, the bottom line is that Coase had some simple but deep insights and we are still working out the implications.