Economy and the business firm

At its simplest level, a business enterprise represents a series of contractual relationships that specify the rights and responsibilities of various parties. People directly involved include customers, stockholders, management, employees, and suppliers. Society is also involved because businesses use scarce resources, pay taxes, provide employment opportunities, and produce much of society’s material and services output. Firms are a useful device for producing and distributing goods and services. They are economic entities and are best analyzed in the context of an economic model.

Expected Value Maximization

The model of business is called the theory of the firm. In its simplest version, the firm is thought to have profit maximization as its primary goal. The firm’s owner-manager is assumed to be working to maximize the firm’s short-run profits. Today, the emphasis on profits has been broadened to encompass uncertainty and the time value of money. In this more complete model, the primary goal of the firm is long-term expected value maximization. The value of the firm is the present value of the firm’s expected future net cash flows. If cash flows are equated to profits for simplicity, the value of the firm today, or its present value,

The Corporation Is a Legal Device

The firm can be viewed as a confluence of contractual relationships that connect suppliers, investors, workers, and management in a joint effort to serve customers.

  • employee
  • society
  • investor
  • management
  • customer
  • supplier

Constraints and the Theory of the Firm

Managerial decisions are often made in light of constraints imposed by technology, resource scarcity, contractual obligations, laws, and regulations. To make decisions that maximize value, managers must consider how external constraints affect their ability to achieve organization objectives. Organizations frequently face limited availability of essential inputs, such as skilled labor, raw materials, energy, specialized machinery, and warehouse space. Managers often face limitations on the amount of investment funds available for a particular project or activity. Decisions can also be constrained by contractual requirements. For example, labor contracts limit flexibility in worker scheduling and job assignments. Contracts sometimes require that a minimum level of output be produced to meet delivery requirements. In most instances, output must also meet quality requirements. Some common examples of output quality constraints are nutritional requirements for feed mixtures, audience exposure requirements for marketing promotions, reliability requirements for electronic products, and customer service requirements for minimum satisfaction levels.

Limitations of the Theory of the Firm

Some critics question why the value maximization criterion is used as a foundation for studying firm behavior. Do managers try to optimize (seek the best result) or merely satisfice (seek satisfactory rather than optimal results)? Do managers seek the sharpest needle in a haystack (optimize), or do they stop after finding one sharp enough for sewing (satisfice)? How can one tell whether company support of the United Way, for example, leads to long-run value maximization? Are generous salaries and stock options necessary to attract and retain managers who can keep the firm ahead of the competition? When a risky venture is turned down, is this inefficient risk avoidance? Or does it reflect an appropriate decision from the standpoint of value maximization?

Business Versus Economic Profit

The general public and the business community typically define profit as the residual of sales revenue minus the explicit costs of doing business. It is the amount available to fund equity capital after payment for all other resources used by the firm. This definition of profit is accounting profit, or business profit.

The economist also defines profit as the excess of revenues over costs. However, inputs provided by owners, including entrepreneurial effort and capital, are resources that must be compensated. The economist includes a normal rate of return on equity capital plus an opportunity cost for the effort of the owner-entrepreneur as costs of doing business, just as the interest paid on debt and the wages are costs in calculating business profit. The risk-adjusted normal rate of return on capital is the minimum return necessary to attract and retain investment. Similarly, the opportunity cost of owner effort is determined by the value that could be received in alternative employment. In economic terms, profit is business profit minus the implicit (noncash) costs of capital and other owner-provided inputs used by the firm. This profit concept is frequently referred to as economic profit.


Even after risk adjustment and modification to account for the effects of accounting error and bias, ROE numbers reflect significant variation in economic profits. Many firms earn significant economic profits or experience meaningful economic losses at any given point. To better understand real-world differences in profit rates, it is necessary to examine theories used to explain profit variations.

Compensatory Theory of Economic Profits

Compensatory profit theory describes above-normal rates of return that reward firms for extraordinary success in meeting customer needs, maintaining efficient operations, and so forth. If firms that operate at the industry’s average level of efficiency receive normal rates of return, it is reasonable to expect firms operating at above-average levels of efficiency to earn above-normal rates of return. Inefficient firms can be expected to earn unsatisfactory, below normal rates of return.

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