Holmstrom Milgrom (1991) - Multitask Principal Agent Analyses

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Holmstrom, Bengt and Paul Milgrom (1991), "Multitask Principal-Agent Analyses: Incentive Contracts, Asset Ownership, and Job Design", Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, Vol. 7, Special Issue: Papers from the Conference on the New Science of Organization, January, pp. 24-52. pdf


Introduction In the standard economic treatment of the principal-agent problem, compen- sation systems serve the dual function of allocating risks and rewarding pro- ductive work. A tension between these two functions arises when the agent is risk averse, for providing the agent with effective work incentives often forces him to bear unwanted risk. Existing formal models that have analyzed this tension, however, have produced only limited results. It remains a puzzle for this theory that employment contracts so often specify fixed wages and more generally that incentives within finns appear to be so muted, especially com- pared to those of the market. Also, the models have remained too intractable to effectively address broader organizational issues such as asset ownership, job design, and allocation of authority. In this article, we will analyze a principal-agent model that (i) can account for paying fixed wages even when good, objective output measures are avail- able and agents are highly responsive to incentive pay; (ii) can make recom- mendations and predictions about ownership patterns even when contracts can take full account of all observable variables and court enforcement is perfect; (iii) can explain why employment is sometimes superior to independent contracting even when there are no productive advantages to specific physical or human capital and no financial market imperfections to limit the agent's borrowings; (iv) can explain bureaucratic constraints; and (v) can shed light on how tasks get allocated to different jobs.

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