Holmström’s work is brilliant in how it clarifies many puzzles that are tricky to understand without thinking about incentives within a firm. For example, why would a risk-neutral firm not work enough on high-variance moonshot-type R&D projects? This is a question Holmström asks in his 1989 paper. Four reasons:
First, in Holmström and Milgrom’s 1987 linear contracts paper, optimal risk-sharing leads to more distortion by agents the riskier the project being incentivised, so firms may choose lower expected value projects even if they themselves are risk-neutral.
Second, firms build reputation in capital markets just as workers do with career concerns, and high-variance output projects are more costly in terms of the future value of that reputation when the interest rate on capital is lower (for example, when firms are large and old).
Third, when R&D workers can potentially pursue many different projects, multitasking suggests that workers should be given small and very specific tasks so as to lessen the potential for bonus payments to shift worker effort across projects. Smaller firms with fewer resources may naturally have limits on the types of research a worker could pursue, which surprisingly makes it easier to provide strong incentives for research effort on the remaining possible projects.
Fourth, multitasking suggests that agent’s tasks should be limited, and that high-variance tasks should be assigned to the same agent, which provides a role for decentralising research into large firms providing incremental, safe research, and small firms performing high-variance research. A deep understanding of how these types of internal incentives aggregate into explanations for why firms appear the way they do can best be achieved by a thorough reading of Holmström and Milgrom’s beautiful 1987 paper, “The Firm as an Incentive System”."