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Optimal Firm Management and Welfare Maximizing Policies

Published on:
Updated on:
September 11th, 2020

In early 2020, the European Research Council (ERC) granted €450 million for Europe’s long-term research, because “Europe’s future depends on science and research", reminded Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. Among 185 winning researchers, with expertise ranging across all fields, HEC Paris Professor Bruno Biais was awarded for his research project in finance, entitled "Welfare, Incentives, Dynamics, and Equilibrium". He explains it in this interview.

market equilibrium graph on a world map - aa amie on adobe stock

©aa amie on Adobe stock

Can you explain the intellectual origins of your research project?

Since The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith, 1776) and the Éléments d'économie politique pure (Léon Walras, 1874), economics endeavored to study whether market forces can deliver socially efficient outcomes. Is market equilibrium a Pareto optimum, i.e., a situation in which the allocation of resource is optimal, in the sense that no other allocation would make everybody better off? This line of research culminated in the 1950s with the works of Ken Arrow and Gérard Debreu. Under the assumptions that markets are complete and information symmetric, they proved the two fundamental theorems of welfare: 1) any market equilibrium is a Pareto optimum, and 2) any Pareto optimum can be reached as an equilibrium, after appropriate redistribution of resources via lump sum taxes and subsidies.

Prior, we showed how financial structure and managerial compensation can be designed to align managers and investors’ incentives, and thus increase firm performance.

When these assumptions don’t hold, in particular because of information asymmetry, market equilibrium can entail inefficiencies and lead to socially suboptimal outcomes (as was shown by Joseph Stiglitz, 1982). For example, Ken Arrow (1963, 1971) showed that information asymmetry hinders insurance and risk sharing, while George Akerlof (1970) showed that it could generate market breakdowns, in which no gains from trade can be reaped. Then, Bengt Holmstrom and Jean Tirole (1997) showed that moral hazard could generate credit rationing and financial crises. Biais, Mariotti, Plantin and Rochet (2007) extended this analysis to a dynamic context, showing how financial structure and managerial compensation can be designed to align managers and investors’ incentives, and thus increase firm performance.

What are the goals of your research and how do you plan to proceed?

     The goal of my research project (WIDE) is to develop further the equilibrium analysis of financial markets and corporate investment dynamics under incentive constraints, and obtain implications both for firm management and for welfare maximizing policies. 

First, with my coauthors Sylvain Catherine (now Assistant Professor at Wharton, after a Ph.D. at HEC Paris), Augustin Landier (HEC Paris), Jean Charles Rochet (University of Geneva) and Luke Taylor (Wharton), we will empirically study the dynamic link between managers’ compensation, financial structure and corporate performance. We will use data on managers’ jobs and compensation, as well as on firms’ performance, investment and financial structure. To the extent that it is possible, we will try to study data on small and medium size firms, in which the entrepreneur manager plays a central role, and often owns a significant fraction of the equity. In addition to being vital to the economy, these firms are those for which the theory we want to test is most relevant. 

     The goal of this project is to quantify the importance of moral hazard, to test whether it curbs investment and amplifies bankruptcy risk, and to study how financial structures and incentives can be optimized. 

Second, with my coauthors (Johan Hombert (HEC Paris) and Pierre Olivier Weill (UCLA), we will theoretically analyze dynamic equilibrium in financial markets subject to incentive constraints. One of the major functions of financial markets is to enable investors and institutions to share risk, in particular via derivative markets. If sufficiently rich, these trading opportunities could make markets complete, as in the seminal analysis of Arrow and Debreu. Incentive constraints, however, can prevent trades and thus make markets endogenously incomplete. The intuition is the following: Should investors or financial institutions promise too much insurance in certain states, they would end up in financial distress in those states, which would distort their incentives, and eventually generate counterparty risk. 

The goal of this project is to study whether an optimal, incentive compatible, taxation mechanism involves financial transaction taxes. In particular, we will examine whether levying financial transactions taxes can enable the government to reduce taxes on capital and labor income, and thus increase investment and economic efficiency. 

     The goal of this project is to derive the implications of incentive constraints on the equilibrium pricing of assets, and to study how regulations and optimal contracting can better align market participants’ incentives, and thus improve their ability to share risk.

Third, with my coauthor Jean Charles Rochet (University of Geneva), we will study whether it is socially optimal to tax transactions. Keynes (1936), Tobin (1978) and Stiglitz (1989) have called for financial transactions taxes, arguing they would curb excessive speculation and volatility. We will take a completely different route. In our model, financial markets will be efficient, but information asymmetry between taxpayers and governments will make taxes distortive, as in the seminal analysis of James Mirrlees (1971). While Mirrlees and the following literature focused on private information about individual productivity, in line with the empirical observation that private businesses are hard to evaluate and to tax, we will assume agents have private information on their wealth. Tax mechanisms must then be designed under the incentive compatibility condition that agents truthfully reveal their wealth. Empirical observation suggests that wealthier agents have larger financial wealth and larger transaction volume, so that taxing financial transactions could be helpful to overcome, at least in part, information asymmetries.

     The goal of this project is to study whether an optimal, incentive compatible, taxation mechanism involves financial transaction taxes. In particular, we will examine whether levying financial transactions taxes can enable the government to reduce taxes on capital and labor income, and thus increase investment and economic efficiency.


Market equilibrium: In equilibrium, agent’s optimal actions and prices are such that supply and demand are equal. 

Welfare economics: A branch of economics that uses microeconomic techniques to evaluate well-being (welfare) at the aggregate (economy-wide) level.

Dynamics: In contrast with static analyses, dynamic analyses examine how agents’ behavior evolve through time, in interaction with changes in their environment.

Economic incentives: The set of cost and rewards which motivate agents, with given preferences, to behave in a certain way.


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