STOCKHOLM — French economist Jean Tirole won the Nobel prize for economics Oct. 13 for research on market power and regulation that has helped policy-makers understand how to deal with industries dominated by a few companies.
Calling Tirole “one of the most influential economists of our time,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said he’s made contributions in a range of research areas. But it highlighted his role in clarifying “how to understand and regulate industries with a few powerful firms.”
Tirole, 61, works at the Toulouse School of Economics in France and has a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Left unregulated, industries that are dominated by a few single firms can produce undesirable results, such as unnecessarily high prices or unproductive companies blocking new firms from entering the market.
From the mid-1980s, Tirole “breathed new life into research on such market failures,” the academy said, adding his work has strong bearing on how governments deal with mergers or cartels and how they should regulate monopolies.
“In a series of articles and books, Jean Tirole has presented a general framework for designing such policies and applied it to a number of industries, ranging from telecommunications to banking,” the academy said.
His work is credited with helping drive the deregulation of industries in developed economies in the 1980s and 1990s, when many sectors were dominated by state-owned companies or monopolies. More recently, however, Tirole has argued for stronger regulation in the wake of the global financial crisis.
In a 2012 interview, Tirole told the financial journal Les Echos that the 2008 financial crisis stemmed primarily from regulatory failure.
“The vision according to which economists have unlimited trust in the efficiency of markets is 30 years behind the times,” he said, adding his research “does not advocate necessarily more or less of the state, but rather better state intervention.”
Harvard University professor and economist Philippe Aghion said on France’s BFM television that Tirole’s work is particularly useful to governments as they try to determine the best level of regulation, notably of banks after the global financial crisis. “Tirole is at the frontier of this domain,” Aghion said.
It was the first economics prize without an American winner since 1999. “I’m so moved,” Tirole said, speaking to a news conference in Stockholm on a telephone link from Toulouse.
In an interview with France-Info radio, Tirole said his work applied theories derived from game theory to industry.
“The idea is to give companies the analytical means to deal with new contexts and also to give regulators the analytical tools they need,” he said. “For example, how to deregulate electricity or railroads without creating infrastructure problems. How to allow entrants who are perhaps more dynamic without expropriating from the companies already in place.”
Before Tirole, the academy said, policy-makers advocated simple rules including capping prices for companies with a monopoly and banning cooperation between competitors. Tirole showed that in some circumstances, such rules can do more harm than good.
“His contribution is that he has given us a whole toolbox,” said prize committee Secretary Torsten Persson. “More than that, he has given us an instruction manual for what tool to use in what market.”
Drawing on insights based on Tirole’s work, “governments can better encourage powerful firms to become more productive and, at the same time, prevent them from harming competitors and customers,” the academy said.
The economics prize completed the 2014 Nobel Prize announcements.
In Nobel Prizes awarded last week, Taliban attack survivor Malala Yousafzai, 17, became the youngest Nobel winner ever as she and Kailash Satyarthi of India won the peace prize for fighting for children’s rights. French writer Patrick Modiano won the literature prize for his lifelong study of the Nazi occupation and its effect on his country.
U.S. researchers Eric Betzig and William Moerner and Stefan Hell of Germany shared the chemistry prize for finding ways to make microscopes more powerful than previously thought possible; while Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and Japanese-born U.S. scientist Shuji Nakamura won the physics prize for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes used in mobile phones, computers and TVs.
The awards will be presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
Even though the economics award is not an original Nobel Prize — it was added in 1968 by Sweden’s central bank — it is presented with the others and carries the same prize money.
Last year the economics prize went to three Americans who shed light on the forces that move stock, bond and home prices.
By Karl Ritter and Nathalie Rothschild. Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report