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5.7 Transaction Costs and Boundaries of the Firm

We have discussed several reasons a firm may decide to expand. At first glance, it may seem that expanding a business is often a good idea and has little downside risk if the larger enterprise is managed properly. In fact, during the last century successful businesses often engaged in horizontal and vertical integration and even became conglomerates due to such reasoning.

However, as many of these large corporations learned, it is possible to become too large, too complex, or too diversified. One consequence of a corporation growing large and complex is that it needs a management structure that is large and complex. There needs to be some specialization among managers, much as there is specialization in its labor force. Each manager only understands a small piece of the corporation’s operations, so there needs to be efficient communication between managers to be able to take advantage of the opportunities of integration and conglomeration. This requires additional management to manage the managers.

Large firms usually have some form of layered or pyramid management both to allow specialization of management and to facilitate communication. Still, as the number of layers increases, the complexity of communication grows faster than the size of the management staff. Information overload results in the failure of key information to arrive to the right person at the right time. In effect, at some point the firm can experience diseconomies of scale and diseconomies of scope as the result of management complexity increasing faster than the rate of growth in the overall enterprise.

Another problem with expansion, especially in the cases of vertical integration and conglomerates, is that different kinds of businesses may do better with different styles of management. The culture of a successful manufacturer of consumer goods is not necessarily the culture of a startup software company. When many kinds of businesses are part of the same corporation, it may be difficult to synchronize different business cultures.

Economists have developed a theory called transaction cost economicsA theory that explains when a firm should expand, not expand, break apart, or sell off business units based on the costs involved in making exchanges. to try to explain when a firm should expand and when it should not, or even when the firm would do better to either break apart or sell off some of its business units. A transaction cost is the cost involved in making an exchange. An exchange can be external or internal. An external exchange occurs when two separate businesses are involved, like the television manufacturer and its parts supplier in the earlier example. Prior to the actual exchange of parts for cash, there is a period in which the companies need to come to agreement on price and other terms. The external transaction costs are the costs to create and monitor this agreement.

If a firm decides to expand its boundaries to handle the exchange internally, there are new internal transaction costs. These would be the costs to plan and coordinate these internal exchanges. If exchanges of this nature have not been done before, these internal transaction costs can be significant.

Nobel Prize laureate Ronald Coase introduced the concept of transaction costs and also proposed a principle for determining when to expand known as the Coase hypothesis.The initial article that stimulated later development of the transaction cost concept was by Ronald Coase (1937). Essentially, the principle states that firms should continue to expand as long as internal transaction costs are less than external transaction costs for the same kind of exchange.