Projects As Micro-Markets
Can an individual project contain within it an internal, though temporary market? The definition of a market found in a standard economics text is “any arrangement in which the interaction of buyers and sellers determines the price and quantity of goods and services exchanged”. By this criteria the act of procurement, which is purchasing goods and services, is indeed a market transaction.
A market for a single project is created by the client as they go through the procurement process, regardless of the particular system or method of procurement followed. The client is the buyer of a bundle of goods and services from the contractor/s bidding or negotiating for the project, and their interaction on the scope (quantity) and price of the project is resolved when the agreement or contract is exchanged. In particular, the extent of market power held, gained or lost by participants as the procurement process goes through the stages of pre-bid, tender, final bid and negotiation, or some variation of those stages, is an important factor.
A distinction can be made between the market for a project, typically one of many similar types of projects, and the market for the supply of the bundle of goods and services required to deliver that specific project. Such a market is created by a project manager or lead contractor as they organize the work and subcontract the various specialized tasks. This could be called a micro-market, and it establishes within the project an internal market.
If procurement of a project creates an identifiable, though temporary, micro-market for goods and services, what are the distinctive characteristics of such a market? Clearly it is not like a conventional market described in a textbook. The characteristics of markets are the number of buyers and sellers, the distinctiveness and substitutability of products, forms of competition, barriers to entry and concentration ratio, and the information and mobility of customers. These market characteristics do not, however, neatly carry over to industries with extensive subcontracting, such as building and construction, for three reasons.
The first reason is there is only one buyer, and in such a market with a single buyer it is possible to gain market power through bargaining with potential suppliers. Bargaining power is found in the bilateral negotiations over terms and conditions of supply between trading partners. In a bargaining framework buyer power is the ability to extract surplus from a supplier, typically through individually negotiated discounts. However, because this bargaining power cannot be exercised when suppliers are competitive, it is a countervailing power and thus its use is constrained by circumstances.
Buyer power is the bargaining strength a buyer has with suppliers with whom it trades, where its bargaining strength depends on its ability to credibly threaten to impose an opportunity cost if it is not granted a concession. The traditional economic treatment of bargaining power uses the concept of outside options available to buyers and sellers. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission describes these as “the outside option is the best option that either the seller or buyer can achieve if they walk away from the negotiations.” Strong outside options for a buyer, or weak outside options for a seller, will be a major source of buyer power in a bilateral bargaining framework.
The second reason is that subcontractors are typically not engaged in a single transaction, as in the market-based trades of instant exchange and settlement envisaged in economics textbooks. The relationship between a large corporation and its subcontractors is typically more durable and intensive than a market relationship. This idea of ‘relational contracting’ has firms developing long-term ties with contractors, often with a degree of mutual understanding and trust that are not typical of market transactions. Instead of using the market, the firm will rely on a trusted supplier, especially when their relationship involves shared knowledge and learning.
Third, there are ‘hybrid’ concepts, where relations between a head contractor and the subcontractors are stable and continuous over fairly long periods of time and only infrequently established through competitive bidding. A form of-integration that largely makes the concept of relational exchange redundant. The hybrid concept does not survive the reality of contractual obligations, however. While there may be relational aspects to the organization of production/projects between firms, the legal distinction between firms, markets and other arrangements remains real, and the legal status of the firm has not been undermined. Conceptual boundaries are not contractual boundaries, and this distinction should not be ignored.
A different approach to these long-term or continuous relationships is the idea that a project creates an internal, temporary, micro-market for the goods and services supplied by subcontractors. This temporary micro-market, or internal project market, comes into formal existence after the procurement process has been completed, a contract signed and the project become a defined, deliverable building or structure (although there seems to be no good reason why this idea could not be applied to any type of project, such as software or equipment development).
In fact, all this takes us back to Ronald Coase’s original 1937 paper ‘The nature of the firm’. Coase was the first to argue that markets and firms are alternative governance structures for economic transactions. Importantly, the firm is a distinct legal entity, a ‘legal person’ that enters into written or unwritten contracts. He argued the firm is an organisation, rather than just a production function, and separated the market from the firm with the ‘price mechanism’ on one hand and its ‘supersession’ on the other.
For Coase the alternative to the firm was the coordination of self-employed individual producers by the market, each being his or her ‘own master’. In the case of subcontracting, this extended organization still coordinates production, but within the temporary market created by the project. Like any other type of market this internal, temporary micro-market created by a project will have a range of characteristics and dynamics.
The basic proposition behind this line of reasoning is the idea that project procurement is a mechanism for creating an internal market. If this is the case, we can utilise the elements of industry structure, competitive analysis and so on, that have traditionally been applied at the firm level, to better understand projects and their governance.