On X-Inefficiency

Yesterday, I wrote this in my summary of Bloom and co-authors’ paper on productivity in India:

Economists tend to not buy into this because they assume that profit maximization implies cost minimization
So in other words, if firms are not minimizing costs by adopting good management practices, it is because “wages are so low that repairing defects is cheap. Hence, their management practices are not bad, but the optimal response to low wages.”

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/02/23/notes-from-does-management-matter-evidence-from-india-by-bloom-et-al/

… which brought to mind of the topic of X-inefficiency, for the second time this year. The first was when Tyler Cowen wrote about it in January. Here’s Wikipedia:

X-inefficiency is the divergence of a firm’s observed behavior in practice, influenced by a lack of competitive pressure, from efficient behavior assumed or implied by economic theory. The concept of X-inefficiency was introduced by Harvey Leibenstein

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-inefficiency

X-inefficiency, in essence, is the idea that the economic theory idea about efficient firms in efficient markets is perhaps a little overblown. Here’s a quote from the paper itself:

The simple fact is that neither individuals nor firms work as hard, nor do they search for information as effectively, as they could. The importance of motivation and its association with degree of effort and search arises because the relation between inputs and outputs is not a determinate one. There are four reasons why given inputs cannot be transformed into predetermined outputs: (a) contracts for labor are incomplete, (b) not all factors of production are marketed, (c) the production function is not completely specified or known, and (d) interdependence and uncertainty lead competing firms to cooperate tacitly with each other in some respects, and to imitate each other with respect to technique, to some degree.

Leibenstein, Harvey. “Allocative Efficiency vs. ‘X-Efficiency.’” The American Economic Review, vol. 56, no. 3, 1966, pp. 392–415. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823775

By the way, the entire paper is worth reading, because it contains multiple delightful nuggets. The Hawthorne effect, which I mentioned in yesterday’s blogpost makes an appearance, and it also helps one understand why microeconomic textbooks are a very poor way to learn about the real world. Consider this delightful quote, for example:

One idea that emerges from this study is that firms and economies do not operate on an outer-bound production possibility surface consistent with their resources. Rather they actually work on a production surface that is well within that outer bound.

Leibenstein, Harvey. “Allocative Efficiency vs. ‘X-Efficiency.’” The American Economic Review, vol. 56, no. 3, 1966, pp. 392–415. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823775

OK, so people and firms are both not as efficient as econ textbooks make them out to be. This is not, to put it politely, headline material in the non-econ world. What might be potential solutions?

In situations where competitive pressure is light, many people will trade the disutility of greater effort, of search, and the control of other peoples’ activities for the utility of feeling less pressure and of better interpersonal relations. But in situations where competitive pressures are high, and hence the costs of such trades are also high, they will exchange less of the disutility
of effort for the utility of freedom from pressure, etc

ibid

In English, this means the following:

  • Government offices are unlikely to be as productive as private sector offices
  • Surround yourself with folks who are go-getter types
  • And this is my take: figure out for yourself a good boss/manager/mentor who will push you, but in a non-zero sum way

This last part is all but impossible, but oh-so-important.

In any case: x-inefficiencies. An underrated topic from micro!

Notes from Does Management Matter? Evidence from India, by Bloom et al

  • Yesterday, I had linked to a paper by Bloom et al, and said that it would be a good place to start reading about productivity, particularly from an Indian point of view. Here are my notes from the paper:

  • As per Hsieh and Klenow the ratio of TFP in Indian and Chinese firms is 5(!) between the 90th and the 10th percentile
  • The quality of management, and therefore management practices, is one explanatory factor
  • Economists tend to not buy into this because they assume that profit maximization implies cost minimization
  • So in other words, if firms are not minimizing costs by adopting good management practices, it is because “wages are so low that repairing defects is cheap. Hence, their management practices are not bad, but the optimal response to low wages.”
  • In this paper, large multiplant textile firms were split into treatment and control groups. The treatment groups were given management consulting from a top consulting group, the control groups weren’t.
  • The result: “We estimate that within the first year productivity increased by 17%; based on these changes we impute that annual profitability increased by over $300,000. These better-managed firms also appeared to grow faster, with suggestive evidence that better management allowed them to delegate more and open more production plants in the three years following the start of the experiment. These firms also spread these management improvements from their treatment plants to other plants they owned, providing revealed preference evidence on their beneficial impact.”
  • So why wasn’t this being done already?
    • No need, because benchmarking was with local competition, who weren’t doing it anyway
    • Simple lack of awareness
    • A naïve belief that nothing would change by adopting these practices
  • But even within local competition, why did firms not exit?
    • Competitive pressures were heavily restricted
      • High import tariffs
      • No entry of firms by lack of external finance
      • Number of male family members
      • Lack of trust of professional managers (family owned businesses)
  • TFP in India is about 40% that of the USA, as per Caselli 2011
  • “Indian firms tend not to collect and analyze data systematically in their factories, they tend not to set and monitor clear targets for performance, and they do not explicitly link pay or promotion with performance. The scores for Brazil and China in the third panel, with an average of 2.67, are similar, suggesting that the management of Indian firms is broadly representative of large firms in emerging economies.”
  • The interventions comprised of improvements in:
    • Factory operations
    • Quality control
    • Inventory
    • Human Resource Management
    • Sales and order management
  • This was done by implementing the following steps:
    • A diagnostic phase
    • An implementation phase (this was for only the treatment group, obviously)
    • A measurement phase
  • The authors carefully consider whether the Hawthorne effect was at play, and reject the possibility.
  • ” In every firm in our sample, before the treatment, only members of the owning family had positions with any real decision-making power over finance, purchasing, operations, or employment. Non-family members were given only lower-level managerial positions with authority only over basic day-to-day activities. The principal reason seems to be that family members did not trust non-family members. For example, they were concerned if they let their plant managers procure yarn they may do so at inflated rates from friends and receive kickbacks.”
  • “A key reason for this inability to decentralize appears to be the weak rule of law in India. Even if directors found managers stealing, their ability to successfully prosecute them and recover the assets is likely minimal because of the inefficiency of Indian courts”
  • “Hence, the equilibrium appears to be that with Indian wage rates being extremely low, firms can survive with poor management practices. Because spans of control are constrained, productive firms are limited from expanding, so reallocation does not drive out badly run firms. Because entry is limited, new firms do not enter rapidly. The situation approximates a Melitz (2003)–style model with firms experiencing high decreasing returns to scale due to Lucas (1978) span of control constraints, high entry costs, and low initial productivity draws (because good management practices are not widespread).”
  • There are three reasons for inefficiency:
    • motivation problem
    • inspiration problem
    • perception problem
  • I need to read Lucas (1978) and Melitz (2003) next!