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Two economists win Nobel for insights on setting pay, rewards

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By Daniel Dickson and Niklas Pollard, Reuters

STOCKHOLM — British-born Oliver Hart and Finland’s Bengt Holmstrom won the Nobel Economics Prize on Monday for work that addresses a host of questions from how best to reward executives to whether schools and prisons should be privately owned.

Their findings on contract theory have implications in such areas as corporate governance, bankruptcy legislation and political constitutions, said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which announced the 8 million Swedish crown ($928,000) prize.

“This theory has really been incredibly important, not just for economics, but also for other social sciences,” said Per Stromberg, a member of the prize committee and professor at the Stockholm School of Economics.

Contract theory considers, for example, whether managers should get paid bonuses or stock options, or whether teachers or health care workers should be paid fixed rates or by performance-based criteria.

Hart is an economics professor at Harvard University while Holmstrom is a professor of economics and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The nine academics who won Nobel Prizes this year in medicine, physics, chemistry and economics included five Britons, a Frenchman, a Finn, a Dutchman and a Japanese.

Six of the winners, including all five Britons, are based at U.S. universities.

‘HUG MY WIFE’

“I woke at about 4:40 and was wondering whether it was getting too late for it to be this year, but then fortunately the phone rang,” Hart was quoted as saying on the official Twitter account of the Nobel Prize.

“My first action was to hug my wife, wake up my younger son.”

Hart’s work has focused in part on understanding which companies should merge and the right mix of financing, and when institutions such as schools, prisons and hospitals should be privately or publicly owned, the academy said in a statement.

He has argued that the incentives for cost reductions in privatized services, such as private prisons in the United States, are typically too strong.

Contracts are “just fundamental to the whole idea that trade is a quid pro quo and that there are two sides to a transaction,” Hart said.

Holmstrom has studied the setting of contracts for workers from teachers to corporate bosses. He concluded that: “In industries with high risk, payment should ... be relatively more biased toward a fixed salary, while in more stable environments it should be more biased toward a performance measure,”

the academy said.

On MIT’s Twitter feed, Holmstrom said he felt grateful and lucky to have won the Nobel Economics Prize. “Research that exactly goes where you expected it to go is uninteresting, on the whole,” he said.

He had argued that teachers’ pay should not just be based on students’ test scores, but set in a way that would also reward the teaching of harder-to-measure skills such as creativity and independent thinking.

(Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom, Johan Ahlander and Bjorn Rundstrom, and Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Alistair Scrutton, Mark Trevelyan and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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