The Organization of Firms Across Countries

by Nicholas Bloom, Rafaella Sadun & John Van Reenen

Overview — Economists have been paying increasing attention to the role that culture plays in a firm's overall performance. This paper focuses on how trust—a key cultural factor—affects firms' decision-making process, size, and productivity. Research was conducted by Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University, Rafaella Sadun of the Harvard Business School, and John Van Reenen of the London School of Economics. Key concepts include:

  • If a firm is headquartered in a country where trust is prevalent (such as Sweden), it is much more likely to decentralize its decision making than if it is headquartered in a country in which trust is rarer (such as India). In short, higher trust leads to more decentralization.
  • Trust also enables a firm to hire a large number of plant managers, because the CEO will feel comfortable delegating decisions to their direct reports without spending too much time on supervision. Thus, higher trust increases firm size.
  • Higher trust increases the marginal value of information technology's effect on productivity.

Author Abstract

We argue that social capital as proxied by trust increases aggregate productivity by affecting the organization of firms. To do this we collect new data on the decentralization of investment, hiring, production, and sales decisions from Corporate Headquarters to local plant managers in almost 4,000 firms in the United States, Europe, and Asia. We find that firms headquartered in high trust regions are more likely to decentralize, with trust accounting for about half of the variation in decentralization in our data. To help identify causal effects, we look within multinational firms, and show that higher levels of bilateral trust between the multinational's country of origin and subsidiary's country of location increases decentralization, even after instrumenting trust using religious and ethnic similarities between the countries. Trust raises aggregate productivity through two channels: (1) trust facilitates reallocation between firms by allowing more efficient firms to grow as CEOs can decentralize more decisions and (2) trust complements the adoption of new technologies, thereby increasing productivity within firms during times of rapid technological change.

Paper Information