The Role of Institutional Development in the Prevalence and Value of Family Firms

by Raphael Amit, Yuan Ding, Belén Villalonga & Hua Zhang

Overview — Family firms dominate economic activity in most countries, and are significantly different from other companies in their behavior, structural characteristics, and performance. But what explains the significant variation in the prevalence and value of family firms around the world? The two leading explanations are legal investor protection and institutional development, but cross-country studies are unable to rule out the alternative explanation that cultural norms are what account for these differences. In contrast, China provides an excellent laboratory for addressing this question because it offers great variation in institutional efficiency across regions, yet the country as a whole shares cultural and social norms together with a common legal and regulatory framework. In this paper, HBS professor Belén Villalonga and coauthors study ownership data from a sample of nearly 1,500 publicly listed firms on the Chinese stock market. They conclude that institutional development plays a critical role in the prevalence and value of family firms, and that the differences observed across regions are not attributable to cultural factors. Key concepts include:

  • Family firms do not inhibit growth and development, as is sometimes argued. This seems clear due to the relatively higher prevalence of family firms even in regions with high institutional efficiency.
  • The effects of family, ownership, control, and management in China are remarkable similar to those found by professor Villalonga in her earlier research based on U.S. data. Namely, family ownership is positively related to value, family control in excess of ownership is negatively related to value, and family management, when exercised by the firm's founders as is primarily the case in China, is positively related to value. However, in China these effects are largely driven by the low institutional efficiency regions. In the high efficiency regions, none of these effects are significant.
  • These findings are particularly relevant for China as it continues its transition from a central planning system to a market economy.
  • On average, family firms are significantly smaller, younger, and less capital-intensive than non-family firms. Yet they exhibit significantly lower systematic risk, and they are not significantly different from non-family firms in their growth and leverage.

Author Abstract

We investigate the role played by institutional development in the prevalence and value of family firms, while controlling for the potential effect of cultural norms. China provides a good research lab since it combines great heterogeneity in institutional development across the Chinese provinces with homogeneity in cultural norms, law, and regulation. Using hand-collected data from publicly listed Chinese firms, we find that, when institutional efficiency is low, family ownership and management increase value, while family control in excess of ownership reduces value. When institutional efficiency is high, none of these effects are significant. Keywords: Family firms, Ownership, Control, Management, Value, Institutional development, China 60 pages

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