Industrial Organization is the economic field that studies the strategic behaviour of firms, and their interaction to determine the structure of markets. Knowing their evolution helps to understand them. The traditional neoclassical theory made the relation between “industrial” and “manufacturing”, making the manufacturing market the main target of studies focusing in the technological result. It left aside aspects, such as organization, management and property. This perspective was criticized for using unrealistic assumptions and because it failed to explain a series of phenomena such as imperfect competition and asymmetric information amongst others.
During the 1930s, a new perspective started to take shape, especially from ideas coming from the Harvard school, and theory began to focus in the behaviour of agents in the industry and in the structure of both firms and industry. In his book “The Theory of Monopolistic Competition”, 1933, Edward H. Chamberlin wrote about imperfect competition and found that many markets were differentiated, thus turning markets into unique. There were many works and papers produced on how markets were arranged in terms of the concentration of suppliers, describing how some markets were dominated by a relatively small number of firms.
In his book “Industrial Organization”, 1959, Joe S. Bain Jr. provided the Structure, Conduct and Performance paradigm (SCP), which is used as an analytical framework, to make relations amongst market structure, market conduct and market performance. The market structure will determine its conduct and thereby its performance.
As implications of all this, regarding economic policies, Harvard School recognizes market power as being dangerous, and establishes a relation between, the concentration ratio, and the harmful effects on social welfare. The dynamic behaviour of buyers and sellers have an effect on the markets, making it harder to predict and establish fixed market structures. Difficulties arise when trying to explain the paradigm and this is due to data shortage, and the multiple definitions and extension of markets.
The Chicago school criticized the “empiricism without theory” of the SCP paradigm, and so returned to the Neoclassical pricing theory, having a more benign view of the market’s results, and having a theoretical (rather than empirical) approach. They start from the framework of perfect competition, and consider interventionism as being the source of monopolies. From Chicago’s point of view, the market’s efficiency guarantees the achievement of social welfare, and therefore firms are encouraged to seek efficiency in their production and distribution. As to the implications regarding economic policies, government intervention is considered undesirable, as the market’s forces should be left to act, and the cost of the intervention is believed to be higher than the social benefit, producing a deadweight loss.
The Austrian school also contributed to the development of the Industrial Organization theory, breaking with the Neoclassical approach. From the same school we can distinguish two main views: von Mises and his disciples’ view and Schumpeter‘s.
Mises describes the structure of the market as a dynamic process of exploration of new methods and opportunities to improve the use of resources, and thus competition is beneficial, as it encourages efficiency and innovations. Therefore, markets have to be free, and it dismays government intervention, although some regulation is praised when innovation is promoted.
From Schumpeter’s point of view, technical progress comes from a process of creative destruction, in which innovations make prior technology out-dated and originate from the innovative entrepreneur. Monopolies have a positive consideration, as they carry out the function of promoting innovation and investments, and government intervention should guarantee both of these.
Contestable markets came up as an alternative approach to the problems concerning market power. These ideas were first introduced by William J. Baumol in his “Contestable Markets: An Uprising in the Theory of Industry Structure”, 1982. In contestable markets there are no entry or exit barriers, no sunk costs and firms have access to the same level of technology. All this makes the number of firms irrelevant, as many will access it and then leave, following different strategies. This view has important limitations: for instance, its starting assumptions are quite restrictive; the definition of cost is not fully suitable; and that, in the real world, a market with such characteristics, is unconceivable.
Between the 1970s and 1980s, a series of theoretical models formulated using game theory in a framework of imperfect competition, made obsolete previous models, such as the SCP paradigm. As a result, there is more emphasis in imperfect information, in firms’ behaviour and, also, in mathematical tools used to calculate social or optimal equilibrium and market equilibrium. In general, there is a shift towards analysing the internal structure of firms, and different views of the firm arose.
Ronald H. Coase, described businesses as being a series of contracts amongst its workers, and explains that it is more beneficial to form firms, since there are a number of transaction costs that can be reduced or even eliminated.
When a business grows in size, there will normally be a distinction between managers and owners. Olivier E. Williamson took notice of the internal boundaries that firms have, and distinguished between decision-making, management and business ownership. The agency theory describes and explains the issues that arise between business managers and owners, as their respective objectives differ.
George Stigler’s contributions to industrial organization must also be mentioned, even though they were more focused on the economical aspect of the theory, rather than opening a debate on how firms interact with each other. Stigler stressed the importance of economies of scale, since it would make a big difference when concentration in the market and firms’ size increased. Furthermore, Stigler developed his “own” theory on cost analysis in his article “Production and Distribution in the Short Run”, 1939 (see Stigler’s cost analysis theory), which moved slightly away from neoclassical cost analysis. When considering the size of firms, economies of scope are also a possibility, as Baumol pointed out in his co-authored book “Contestable Markets: An Uprising in the Theory of Industry Structure”, 1982.
To conclude, it is necessary to clarify that, nowadays, the industrial organization theory accepts multiple perspectives. This theory has not only grown within its field, but also in others, such as applied microeconomics and business management, and, as we have seen during the last years, the boundaries of business and markets have become less clear, and many new definitions and shapes are appearing. This explains the flexibility and the relevance of the industrial organization theory.