Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Shares His Thoughts On Smart Contracts

Oliver Hart won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2016 for his work in contract theory, the study of how contracts and incentives influence decision-making and business relationships.

Hart sat down with Business Insider’s Sara Silverstein at UBS’s Nobel Perspectives Live event in Brooklyn. Hart talks about the rise of blockchain-based smart contracts. He explains that smart contracts don’t solve the problems of incomplete contracts that his work is focused on.

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Following is a transcript of the video:

Sara Silverstein: You won the Nobel Prize for your work in contract theory. Can you tell me at all about what you think about smart contracts that we’re seeing now? Are they gonna revolutionize everything? Do they solve all the problems that you were working on?

Oliver Hart: That’s right, they’re gonna take the prize away. It’s all gonna be irrelevant.

I must admit — first, that I know little about smart contracts. I’m trying to understand more about them as I am about bitcoin, blockchain, all the rest. It’s all a bit mysterious. I’m doubtful that it’s going to be a cure-all. I mean, it seems that for some things it could be quite useful ’cause it can automate certain things. And so, you know, if I have some sort of insurance contract which says that if a certain event happens then I’m gonna get paid something, then we can sort of make that automatic so it just comes right into my account. I don’t have to check on anything or call up the insurance company. So, things like that can certainly help but they’re not going to solve — unfortunately the problems I’ve been particularly concerned with are contracts that are written for the long-term and where people are in long-term relationships and economic relationships and they’re trying to anticipate what might happen in the future which is very difficult to do, and write a contract which takes into account these eventualities. They can’t do it because the future’s very uncertain, many things can happen that we don’t really expect, or are able to predict. I don’t see how smart contracts are gonna solve that problem. Or to be more concrete, I mean, if we have a long-term economic relationship I think it’s important that we’re on the same page, we understand each other, if something unexpected comes up we have some reasonable way of dealing with it that makes us both comfortable, happy. I don’t — that’s much more about communication between us I think, at the time we write the contract than it is about any sort of automated device.

Silverstein: And last question can you give an example of the types of incomplete contracts and the bad incentives that those create?

Hart: I use the example of a power plant that locates next to a coal mine and wants to use the coal to burn to make electricity. And this is a real example — I mean there’s empirical work on things like this and the thing is once you’ve located next to the mine, you really want that relationship to work out, because it’s very costly to now ship the coal in from somewhere else. But many things can happen during the course of this relationship so just deciding ahead of time, you know, exactly what kind of coal, how much, how much I should pay you, and all that. Very difficult given that the world’s going to be changing. New sources of energy, solar power gonna come along and that’s gonna affect the industry but we probably can’t anticipate that and write that into the contract. And so later on we may get into some argument about: “I want a different kind of coal,” and the question is how much should I pay for it and this can be costly, this kind of argument and distort incentives and, you know … I don’t think a smart — you know — I’d love to see a computer solve that problem, but I think we’re some way away from that.

Shareholders Care About More Than Just Profits

Oliver Hart is a professor of economics at Harvard University. Hart won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2016 for his work in contract theory and is the author of “Firms, Contracts, and Financial Structure.” Hart sat down with Business Insider’s Sara Silverstein at UBS’s Nobel Perspectives Live event in Brooklyn.

In this interview, Hart discusses his most recent paper “Companies Should Maximize Shareholder Welfare Not Market Value.” He says that profit maximization is important to shareholders, but it’s not the only thing they care about. 

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Following is a transcript of the video:

Sara Silverstein: Can you tell me about your paper and the premise of it?

Oliver Hart: The basic idea – it starts from something that Milton Friedman said in an article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Surprisingly enough. Back in 1970 I think it was — he argued that companies should just devote themselves to the bottom line because he was particularly concerned with the issue — the question whether they should give money to charity. So I think it was a time when CEOs were talking a lot about the broader social purpose of companies and trying to justify charitable contributions. And Friedman said, “This is completely wrong, the only business of business was to make money.” And what they should — a company rather than giving money to charity, should simply give that money to shareholders as a dividend, and then they could decide individually if they wanted to give to charity. So he wasn’t saying that charity wasn’t important, he just said companies don’t have a comparative advantage in giving to charity.

I think it’s quite a compelling argument when it comes to charities. But I think people have taken this argument too far. So what we do in this paper is we say, let’s consider other cases. For example we use … take the case of a company like Walmart — or actually this has been very much in the news, Dick’s Sporting Goods I think, changed their policy on selling guns. So suppose the question is, you know, you can make money by selling assault rifles. The Friedman argument would be, I mean — maybe some of the shareholders care about gun control. His argument would have to be if it’s a profitable strategy to sell high-powered guns, then the company should do it, pay shareholders an extra dividend, and then shareholders individually if they want to give that money to gun control organizations can do so. But when you think about that, it just — the argument sort of falls away. It obviously doesn’t make sense. Because it could be much more efficient if the shareholders want gun control it would be maybe much more efficient for Dick’s simply not to — or Walmart, to sell the weapons in the first place.

Or to take another example, think of a company polluting a lake. Maybe they can make some extra money by doing so. And maybe it’s not illegal because we don’t have very strong regulations. Whatever — so, the Friedman argument would be, make the money by polluting the lake, give the money to the shareholders, and then let them, if they want, clean up the lake. But it could be much more costly to clean up the lake after you’ve polluted it than not to pollute it in the first place. So we argue, given that situations like that are going to arise. Shareholders are companies who have pro-social concerns and we think shareholders do because they are just ordinary individuals and individuals in their own private lives seem to be not just interested in the bottom line. So if that’s the case, then they are going to want the companies they invest in also not to be just interested in the bottom line. So the conclusion is that this idea, which seems to have taken hold that companies should be all about making money and that indeed managers, the CEO, they have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to be concerned only with the bottom line. We think this is wrong — a serious mistake. Actually if they want to act — be loyal to their shareholders — which is what fiduciary duty means. They should actually ask them what they want. That’s the loyal thing to do. Rather than just assume that it’s making money at the expense of all else.

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