The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics
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The Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics

Edited by Peter G. Klein and Michael E. Sykuta

Since its emergence in the 1970s, transaction cost economics (TCE) has become a leading approach in the research on contracts, firm organization and strategy, antitrust, marketing, inter-firm collaboration and entrepreneurship. With contributions by leading scholars in economics, law and business administration – including Oliver E. Williamson, recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for his development of the transaction cost approach – this volume reviews the latest developments in TCE and applies them to contemporary theoretical and empirical problems.
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Chapter 12: Asset Specificity and Holdups

Benjamin Klein


Benjamin Klein Specific assets are assets that have a significantly higher value within a particular transacting relationship than outside the relationship. To illustrate, consider the classic Fisher Body–General Motors case.1 In 1919 Fisher Body undertook a very large expansion in its capacity to supply bodies to General Motors. Automobile bodies, like many other productive inputs, are not sold in a spot market. Therefore, if General Motors decided to stop purchasing from Fisher after Fisher Body made its capacity investments, the Fisher capacity used to produce bodies for General Motors could not immediately and costlessly be transferred to the production and sale of bodies to other automobile companies. Consequently, once Fisher Body made the investment, the plants Fisher built to supply General Motors had a higher value within the General Motors relationship than outside the General Motors relationship. The difference in value within and outside the General Motors relationship is equal to the General Motorsspecific element of the assets.2 The economic relevance of specific assets is that they create the potential for holdups. Once a transactor makes a relationship-specific investment, its transacting partner has the ability to take advantage of the specificity to appropriate some of the rents the transactor expects to earn on the investment. For example, after Fisher Body made its somewhat General Motors-specific capacity investments General Motors could threaten to stop purchasing bodies from Fisher and impose a capital cost on Fisher Body equal to the value of the General Motors-specific element of Fisher’s capacity investments. Therefore,...

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