Friday, October 21, 2016

Can the State Help Firms Innovate? “Get some!”

The role of the state in business is hotly debate in some parts of the world, but less controversial in other parts. A key reason for the debate is that some think that the state can do some things better – for example, having a long-term perspective and committing resources – while others think the state should stay out because its decisions and execution are worse than the private sector. Different parts of the world has reached different answers, with the US standing apart as particularly skeptical of the state, with most of Europe and important parts of Asia having a much more optimistic view of the state.

One of the places with some controversy is actually China, which has gone through a market transition but still has state intervention both through state ownership and state grants to firms. This makes it a great place for looking at what the state can do, and an article by Kevin Zhou,Gerald Gao, and Hongxin Zhao in Administrative Science Quarterly takes advantage of this opportunity.  Their idea is simple. State ownership gives Chinese firms advantages both in general financing and in funding research and development, which in turn should help innovation. But, the effect on innovation will only happen if the firms are actually good at using these extra resources. So, they need to pick good research (decision making) and do the research and development well (execution) in order to do better than firms without state ownership.

Their research has a rich set of results on state effects, but the key conclusions are easy to summarize. Yes, state ownership means getting more money for research and development. Yes, those funds are used less effectively than in firms with no state ownership. And here is the interesting tradeoff: the two effects don’t balance out; instead they make firms with some state ownership superior to those with a lot, and with nothing. The advice is clear: get some! And interestingly, this advice is particularly important not for established firms, which one might think are the ones best able to milk the state for funds, but for start-ups. The reason is that start-ups are better users of the added funds they can get from the state. So, a state that understands this relation should (as the Chinese state clearly does) not just give money to the large and established firms, but also to startups.

And what happens if there is too much of the state? This is a problem seen some places in Europe, where there isn’t a deliberate market transition as in China, and where the state has a fair amount of money. For example, Norway has mostly been directing its oil-funded pension money abroad, for a number of reasons including the peculiarity of owning firms and choosing what firms should receive research funds. In spite of this caution, there is still significant state funded research in Norwegian firms, and Financial Times has reported some indications that it is used less effectively where there is a lot of it. Just like in China.