Michael Jensen is one of the founders of the agency cost economics branch of the New Institutional Economics. A Theory of the Firm collects eight articles by Jensen and various co-authors that, collectively, represent the seminal body of work in this field. (I wonder how his various co-authors felt about being left of the spine of this book?) While his contributions to agency cost theory are the work for which he is best known, Jensen also figures prominently in the intellectual history of the nexus of contracts theory of the firm, as several of the articles collected here demonstrate.
U.S. public corporations are characterized by a separation of ownership and control: the firm's nominal owners, the shareholders, exercise virtually no control over either day to day operations or long-term policy. Instead, control is vested in the hands of professional managers, who typically own only a small portion of the firm's shares. The separation of ownership and control characteristic of U.S. corporations has costs: "The separation of ownership from control produces a condition where the interests of owner and of ultimate manager may, and often do, diverge . . . ." (Berle and Means, 1932). Modern scholars refer to the consequences of these divergences as agency costs, following Jensen and Meckling (1976), which are conventionally defined as the sum of the monitoring and bonding costs, plus any residual loss, incurred to prevent shirking by agents. In turn, shirking is conventionally defined to include as any action by a member of a production team that diverges from the interests of the team as a whole. As such, shirking includes not only culpable cheating, but also negligence, oversight, incapacity, and even honest mistakes. In other words, shirking is simply the inevitable consequence of bounded rationality and opportunism within agency relationships. The classic Jensen & Meckling article is reprinted herein.
Although agency cost theory undeniably is critical to understanding the modern corporate form, too many agency cost theorists have narrowly focused on agency costs to the exclusion of other institutional considerations, which easily can distort one's understanding. Corporate managers operate within a pervasive web of accountability mechanisms that substitute for monitoring by residual claimants. Important constraints are provided by a variety of market forces. The capital and product markets, the internal and external employment markets, and the market for corporate control all constrain shirking by firm agents. In addition, the legal system evolved various adaptive responses to the ineffectiveness of shareholder monitoring, establishing alternative accountability structures to punish and deter wrongdoing by firm agents, such as the board of directors. An even more important consideration, however, is that agency costs are the inevitable consequence of vesting discretion in someone other than the residual claimant. We could substantially reduce, if not eliminate, agency costs by eliminating discretion; that we do not do so suggests that discretion has substantial virtues. A complete theory of the firm thus requires one to balance the virtues of discretion against the need to require that discretion be used responsibly. Neither discretion nor accountability can be ignored, because both promote values essential to the survival of business organizations. Unfortunately, they are ultimately antithetical: one cannot have more of one without also having less of the other - the power to hold to account is the power to decide. Managers cannot be made more accountable without undermining their discretionary authority. Establishing the proper mix of discretion and accountability thus emerges as the central corporate governance question.
Jensen recognizes this tension in several of the articles collected here, which in general are less lex-centric than those of many of his intellectual progeny. In other words, Jensen is less likely to believe that regulation is an appropriate solution to a given problem. Instead, his work focuses on market solutions to agency cost problems. The articles on takeovers and leveraged buyouts are good examples.
As a practical criticism, I should note that newcomers and generalists may find the text heavy going in places, while us old-timers have already read all of these articles in their original publications. Yet, it still belongs on the shelf of any economically literate corporate lawyer.