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Keiretsu shareholding ties: antitrust issues.


A 1957 Supreme Court ruling found that Du Pont violated antitrust laws by holding a 23 percent stock interest in General Motors (GM). GM was a Du Pont customer. In 1947, GM purchased 68 percent of its paint and 38 percent of its fabric from Du Pont. Judge Brennan wrote that Du Pont's commanding position in sales of these products to GM was "promoted by its stock interest and was not gained solely on competitive merit" (Supreme Court of the United States, 1957).

Recent complaints about the Japanese business groups known as keiretsu once again make an antitrust issue of shareholding ties between trading partners. The belief is that shareholding ties predispose firms to trade with one another on grounds other than "competitive merit," precisely as Justice Brennan claimed in the Du Pont-GM case. Keiretsu ties have other facets besides interlocking shareholding--for instance, monthly meetings of the company presidents, interlocking directorates, and in some instances a shared brand name such as "Mitsui" or "Sumitomo." However, the share interlocks are the most pervasive, tangible links among group members. U.S. negotiators in the ongoing Japan-U.S. trade talks have identified the keiretsu groups as a "structural impediment" to the sale of American products in Japan and proposed applying Japan's antimonopoly laws to the keiretsu. In a February 1992 television interview, then U.S. Attorney General William Barr suggested applying U.S. antitrust laws extraterritorially to the keiretsu firms if one could show that their ties to each other impeded American exports to Japan. (The Washington Post, 1992)

Evidence that keiretsu ties have exclusionary effects is hardly compelling. Lawrence (1991) demonstrates that after accounting for the effects of differences in the structure of inputs, sectoral demand, transportation cost, tariffs, and producer concentration, import penetration into Japan is less in those industries for which keiretsu sales are more pervasive. But as Saxonhouse (1991) notes, Lawrence's estimates also indicate that import penetration is less in industries with lower tariff protection, which of course is false. Saxonhouse further contends that Lawrence's specification poorly accounts for the effects of intersectoral factor price differences, non-traded goods, and heterogeneous products.

Lawrence identifies both "horizontal" and "vertical" keiretsu as retarding imports. These terms may be misleading. Both refer to groupings of firms in different industries, firms that possibly are trading partners but are not rivals. By "horizontal" keiretsu, Lawrence means financial keiretsu (kinyu keiretsu), the successors of the pre-war zaibatsu that include many of the largest manufacturing and trading firms as well as the largest private commercial banks and insurance companeis. Lawrence's "vertical" keiretsu are enterprise groups (kigyo shudan). These include large firms--such as Toyota, Matsushita, or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (each of which also is a member of a financial keiretsu--and their families of subsidiaries, subcontractors, and affiliates.

The analysis here focuses on the financial keiretsu, Lawrence's "horizontal keiretsu." Which firms belong to which keiretsu groups certainly is not transparent. A conservative definition of financial keiretsu membership would include only those firms represented at the monthly "presidents' club" meeting. A more includsive but somewhat ambiguous criterion is that members are firms for which a financial institution of the presidents' club is the largest creditor. Lawrence's data source, Dodwell Marketing Consultants, tends towards this wider definition of keiretsu affiliation.


A. Some Preliminary Considerations

Estimating the likely effects of keiretsu share interlocks involves three considerations. (i) The share interlocks typical of the large manufacturing and trading firms that are presidents' club members of the six financial keiretsu--Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Fuyo, Sanwa, and Dai-Ichi--are too small to confer any significant control over target firms' product market choices. The usual range for such shareholding is from less than 1 percent to as much as 5 percent, far below the 23 percent of GM stock that Du Pont held. Shareholding that confers only a silent financial interest nevertheless can have significant effects by altering the calculations of the firm holding the shares.

(ii) The keiretsu groups include firms in differing industries. The firms linked by keiretsu-share interlocks possibly are trading partners but are not rivals. The complete-set principle (wan setto shugi) (Miyazaki, 1967) refers to the fact that each of the six keiretsu includes a city bank, a trust bank, and insurance companies as well as a general trading company and manufacturing companies in a spectrum of industries--one large firm from each different industry. Keiretsu groups tend not to include firms in the same industry. Therefore, cartelization apparently is not the motive.

(iii) Shareholding by financial institutions including the large city banks accounts for more than half of intra-group stockholding in the "financial keiretsu." A bank is likely to have a rather different motivation to hold stock in companies to which it lends than a manufacturing or trading firm has to hold stock in one of its customers or in one of its input suppliers. One therefore needs at least two and perhaps three models of keiretsu stockholding: one for stockholding by banks and the other one or two for stockholding that links trading partners--that is, stockholding in a customer and customer stockholding in a supplier.(1)

B. Shareholding Linking Trading Partners

Commentators often allege that keiretsu presidents' club members are predisposed to trade among themselves. A 1981 Japan Fair Trade Commission survey of the keiretsu presidents' club members' trading patterns found that 20 percent of manufacturing firms' sales transactions over 1 million yen were to fellow members of the same councils (Kosei torihiki iinkai, 1983, table 7, p. 24). Moreover, 12 percent of these manufacturing firms' purchase transactions over 1 million yen were from fellow members. Of course, transactions may have been outside the presidents' club but still within the same keiretsu--that is, the affiliates and subsidiaries of the respective presidents' club members. In any case, this evidence does indicate significant trading ties among presidents' club members.

1. Stockholding, Product Market Bargaining, and Opportunism. Holding stock in a trading partner slants the bargaining over product market variables in favor of the trading partner. Divesting such a stock interest accomplishes the reverse. The firm holding shares in a trading partner can credibly threaten to divest should the trading partner behave opportunistically, withdrawing from it the bargaining advantage that the equity position had conferred. A firm may establish a partial equity position in a trading partner to deter opportunism.

One can make the argument more precise. Suppose that a firm 1 holds [[delta].sub.1] shares in a trading partner, firm 2. Firm 1's profits include its own operating earnings as well as its share interest in firm 2's operating earnings: [[pi].sub.1] = [Z.sub.1] + [[delta].sub.1][Z.sub.2]. If firms 2 itself holds no shares in other firms, its profits consist only of its operating earnings: [[pi].sub.2] = [Z.sub.2]. Assume that failure to agree results in the absence of trade altogether. Nash bargaining over product market transactions between the firms results in [[pi].sub.1] = [[pi].sub.2], which requires that [Z.sub.1] = (1-[[delta].sub.2])[Z.sub.2]. Also, Nash bargaining results in a volume of trade that maximizes the firms' combined profits: [[pi].sub.1] + [[pi].sub.2]. If [[pi].sub.1] = [[pi].sub.2], then [[pi].sub.1] + [[pi].sub.2] = 2([Z.sub.1] + [Z.sub.2])/1-[[delta].sub.1]), and maximizing [[pi].sub.1] + [[pi].sub.2] is equivalent to maximizing [Z.sub.1] + [Z.sub.2].

In an efficient stock market, if firm 1 acquires (divests) shareholdings in firm 2, firm 1 would have to expend (would realize) an amount equaling firm 2's pro rata ex-post earnings. Let superscript "0" denote an ex ante (pre-share trading) value and superscript "1" an ex post value. Firm 1 must expend (would realize) an amount

[MATHEMATICAL EXPRESSION OMITTED] in changing its share interest from [delta]?? to [delta]??. Now firm 1's ex-post value will be



[MATHEMATICAL EXPRESSION OMITTED] And because Z?? and Z?? are determined according to Nash bargaining,


[MATHEMATICAL EXPRESSION OMITTED] Divestiture increases the firm's ex-post value. The enrichment of firm 1's own earnings as it gains bargaining power over firm 2 more than offset firm 1's capital loss on the divested shares in firm 2. complete divestiture reduces firm 2's value by a percentage that is half the percentage of its shares that firm 1 initially had held. One must remember that this analysis assumes that the shareholding link itself does not affect the firms' combined economic rent.

A cross-shareholding link between trading partners will persist only if it does add sufficiently to the firms' combined economic rents so as to offset what are, from the shareholding firm's perspective, adverse effects on the division of rent. How can cross-shareholding increase the economic rent? One way is in supporting investment in transaction specific assets, investments that would not be undertaken if the shareholding firm lacked a credible way of penalizing acts of misrepresentation. Klein et al. (1978) are among the first to recognize the importance of enforcement mechanisms in supporting investments in transaction specific assets.

A supplier can substitute inferior quality products or services for its advertised products and services. That is, it can fail to make investments that enhance the value of the product to the customer and lie about the deception. Symmetrically, a customer can fail to make investments that lower the supplier's costs and also lie. Absent special measures arranged in advance, a firm may not have adequate ways of penalizing a trading partner for such behavior. The holding of an equity interest in a trading partner is precisely the required device: The potential loss of rent should a trading partner act deceitfully is increased by its trading partner's holding of shares. Once discovered, deceit is sure to precipitate divestiture, which imposes a capital loss on the target firm. Shareholding links between trading partners can increase the penalities for failing to invest in transaction specific assets and induce rational expectations of Pareto optimal investing. Where the expansion of rent accompanying such a deepening of investment is sufficiently great, cross-shareholding can persist.

2. Relevance to the Keiretsu. The keiretsu presidents' club members are linked by shareholding ties and also trade with one another. Can one discern whether the shareholding links facilitate the trading? Several observations suggest that this is the case.

(i) The pattern of cross-shareholding within the keiretsu presidents' clubs somewhat mirrors the structure of transactions as indicated by the input-output coefficients linking paired firms' respective industries. That is, keiretsu firms that are likely to have trading ties with one another also have greater equity linkages. Tables 1 and 2 report the data and estimates supporting this claim. The sample population consists of pairs of nonfinancial firms. Both are members of a same presidents' club in 1980, and one owns stock in the other.


TABLE 2 OLS regression estimates; dependent variable = LOGIT

([[delta].sub.ij]), logit of firm i's shareholding in firm j. Keiretsu presidents' clubs members, 1980
 Coefficent estimates
Variable and t-statistics
intercept -7.20
[P.sub.ij] 0.01
[P.sub.ji] 0.02
LNSALE[S.sub.j] -0.29
LNSALE[S.sub.i] 0.41
[R.sup.2] 0.25
F 74.74
n 909

(ii) Where a firm's production activity is wide and less narrowly connected to a particular trading relationship, the costs of resorting to cross-shareholding as a device for enforcing contracts are greater, and cross-shareholding for that purpose should be correspondingly less. The estimates in table 2 clearly indicate that keiretsu firms tend to hold rather fewer shares in other keiretsu firms whose sales are large in relation to their own.

(iii) Where sales are growing more rapidly, the potential damage to future trading opportunities is itself more of a deterrent to opportunism, and shareholding ties can be smaller. When the growth rate of the Japanese economy began to slow in the mid 1970s, keiretsu firms increased their cross-shareholding ties. Up until now, observers perhaps mistakenly have interpreted the deepening of keiretsu shareholding ties in the 1970s as an attempt to strengthen defenses against hostile takeovers.

(iv) The fact that the fellow keiretsu members have accumulated transaction specific assets explains why in the 1950s and 1960s many pre-war zaibatsu member firms reconfigured into virtually the same groups that existed in the 1930s. At the war's end, the American occupation authorities forced the divestiture of zaibatsu cross-shareholding and permanently dissolved the zaibatsu holding companies. These same firms later reestablished their previous alliances, indicating they had accumulated transaction specific assets. Otherwise, new alliances might just as well have been with different firms.

C. Stockholding by Banks

Shareholding by banks comprises a substantial portion of keiretsu crossshareholding.

1. Banks and the Financial Keiretsu. The six largest city banks typically are the largest debtholders in the companies that are members of their keiretsu presidents' club. On average in 1980, the city bank of each respective presidents' club group held about 10 to 20 percent of each manufacturing club member's debt, the trust bank held 5 to 10 percent, and a life insurance company held 1 to 5 percent. Financial institutions not affiliated with the same club held most club members' debt.

Banks account for much of the shareholding in the keiretsu groups. Many commentators argue that stockholding by Japanese banks in the companies to which they lend resolves agency problems and lowers financial intermediation costs. Here "agency problems" are impediments to the alignment of the manager's interests with those of the firm's lenders. Two important manifestations of these agency problems are asset substitution and information asymmetry. Asset substitution is the firm's wasteful investment in assets that are more highly valued by stockholders than by lenders. (The firm's manager presumably acts on behalf of the stockholders who determine his salary and other terms of employment.) Information asymmetry refers to the difficulty that managers and company insiders experience when attempting to communicate credibly inside knowledge that is favorable for the company's risk standing with lenders. Stockholding by banks can reduce the costs of resolving or confronting these problems. Two simple examples illustrate.

(i) Asset substitution. A borrower attaches the same zero value to states in which partial default occurs and to states of full default, but the lender clearly does prefer partial default to complete default. (For an early discussion of the asset substitution problem, see Jensen and Meckling, 1976.) Investments that maximize the firm's expected value but risk partial default therefore may be passed over in favor of riskier projects. Put differently, borrowers are not as averse to default as lenders would like them to be. A symmetric distortion would arise if lenders rather than borrowers chose investments. But because stockholders vote while debtholders do not, one usually considers the manager to be under the stockholders' control.

An example illustrates the problem. Suppose that debt commits the firm to paying interest=$50, the firm's managers must choose one of three projects, and each project has two equally likely payoffs (see table 3).

 State 1 State 2 NPV to NPV to
 prob=.5 prob=.5 NPV stockholders debtholders
Project A $100 $30 $65 $25 $40
Project B 120 0 60 35 25
Project C 50 50 50 0 50

The stockholders prefer project B. The debtholders prefer project C. Choosing A maximizes firm value. Investors holding both debt and stock (not necessarily in equal proportions) will prefer the value maximizing project. If banks hold both stock and debt in companies, other investors' deferring to banks' judgment in evaluating projects can prove advantageous.

(ii) Information asymmetry. Loans must be acceptable to both borrower and lender based on their respective private information. The prudent lender will not rely on borrowers to reveal truthful information that is damaging and instead will assume the worst. If the borrower cannot resolve this problem then self financing by retention of earnings will displace both new equity issues and debt (Myers and Majluf, 1984).

Assume that firms are committed to particular real investments but that the firms are of two types. One is high risk and the other low risk. A manager knows his or her firm's true characteristics, but outsides do not. If debt commits the firm to paying interest=$50, then the high risk firm's debt has a lower NPV than does the low risk firm's (see table 4).

 State 1 State 2 NPV to debt that
 prob=.5 prob=.5 NPV promises interest = $50
High risk firm $100 $0 $50 $25
Low risk firm 50 50 50 50

If the low risk firm is unable to differentiate itself from the high risk firm, then it can sell its debt only at $25--the high risk firm's NPV of debt. On these terms, the low risk firm cannot profitably finance its investments. However, a combination of debt and equity has the same NPV in both firms. Additionally, banks that own stock will have access to inside information enabling them to distinguish the true risk of debt. Moreover, in this example, the low risk firms gain from these aspects of bank stockholding, not the high risk firms. Can this be why not all firms in Japan form main bank relationships or become members of financial keiretsu?

Finally, any mechanism that automatically transfers wealth from stockholders to debtholders in event of default raises the value of debt in the high risk firm, narrowing the difference in value of debt between the two.

2. Stockholding by Banks in the United States and in Japan. Shareholding by lenders including banks effectively resolves the agency problems of borrowing. By holding shares, lenders gain both inside information about the firm's dealings and the power to act on the information. Banks holding both stock and debt have efficient incentives in evaluating the firm's real investments. Banks holding stock can accurately assess risk and forestall asset substitution. Much evidence suggests that shareholding by banks in Japan takes place precisely for these reasons and that only regulatory constraints have deterred American banks from conducting similar practices.

In the United States, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Law prevents shareholding by banks but allows one important exception: Banks may assume ownership of stock in firms that default on their loans. Banks take advantage of this loophole. Gilson (1990) details the extensive equity holdings that banks assume upon loan default. Leveraged-buy-out organizations, which are not banks and therefore not subject to Glass-Steagall, have reorganized a number of large U.S. corporations as limited partnerships in which they hold both equity and debt (Jensen, 1989). Thus, in the limited instances where U.S. law allows lender shareholding, such shareholding does occur.

More generally, U.S. bankruptcy laws transfer control of defaulting firms to creditors in the event that private negotiations fail to accomplish the same. As a result, if asset substitution or misrepresentation ends in default, managers expect to be displaced and shareholders expect to be penalized. The way the U.S. legal system treats bankruptcy assures that managers and shareholders of defaulting firms will bear a cost.

Studies show that bankruptcy's direct costs are small in relation to firm value--less than 10 percent of market value at the time of default. Indirect costs may be large, but estimating them is difficult. And not all costs of bankruptcy to stockholders reduce firm value. That is, default costs borne by stockholders or managers are partially transfers to debtholders.

One way to describe the agency problem of debt is to say that borrowers are not as averse to default as lenders would like them to be. Bankruptcy costs and wealth transfers to debtholders resulting from bankruptcy or default settlements reduce agency problems by making default more painful for borrowers. Shareholding by banks in Japan accomplishes what the threat of bankruptcy does in the United States. It forestalls asset substitution and opportunism. Perhaps the keiretsu evolved because the Japanese legal system was in some sense less adequate for this purpose than is the U.S. system. Alternatively, the absence of a Glass-Steagall prohibition on bank shareholding may have allowed arrangements in Japan that also would be superior to those in the United States but are illegal here. If so, then regulatory distortion costs in the United States may be large.

Banks' shareholding in Japan is limited by the antimonopoly laws. These limits recently have been tightened. Before 1987, banks could legally hold no more than 10 percent of the shares in any one company. Now the limit is 5 percent. Ironically, these regulations are being strengthened just as the advantages of bank shareholding are being recognized.

A small but growing body of evidence shows that shareholding by keiretsu banks indeed has lowered the costs of debt, removed liquidity constraints, and promoted greater borrowing. Companies with close ties to keiretsu banks are less liquidity constrained than are other companies, after accounting for differences in real investment prospects (Hoshi et al., 1991). Additionally, keiretsu banks hold more stock in companies that are prone to agency problems than in others, and agency problems do not constrain borrowing by keiretsu companies as it does U.S. companies. Companies prone to agency problems include those with intangible assets, high growth rates, and high R&D expenses. In the United States, such companies have lower debt to equity ratios (Titman and Wessels, 1988). In Japan, banks are inclined to hold more stock in such firms, and their net borrowing is little different from other firms (Prowse, 1990). Perhaps because Japanese banks hold stock in firms that are prone to agency problems, such firms are less impeded in borrowing in Japan than in the United States.

The Prowse estimates are of a reduced form equation. The analysis here estimates structural equations explaining debt to asset ratios and stockholding by largest lenders in Japanese corporations including members of the financial keiretsu 'presidents' clubs. Tables 5 and 6 describe the data and estimates. Flath (1993) gives further details as well as estimates using market value measures of assets rather than book values. These estimates add further weight to arguments that stockholding by keiretsu banks lowers the costs of their financial intermediation. The estimates indicate that largest debtholders in keiretsu presidents' club firms hold more stock if the firms borrow heavily or have weaker collateral, greater prospects of growth, or high levels of spending on research and development or on advertising. These are precisely the companies most prone to the agency problems of debt that stockholding by a main bank can help resolve. The estimates further demonstrate that keiretsu presidents' club companies in which debtholders hold more stock borrow more, ceteris paribus. On the other hand, non-presidents' club member firms' borrowing is not systematically related to stockholding by banks.



The rationales for cross-shareholding thus pertains to pairs of firms that are trading partners or creditor/client. Why then do the shareholding ties between Japanese firms align the firms into groups? Organizing firms into groups assures that direct shareholding ties between pairs of firms also will result in maximum indirect shareholding. Indirect shareholding by banks (where bank A owns stock in B and B owns stock in C) clearly has the same beneficial effects as does direct shareholding by banks. In other words, indirect shareholding confers spillover benefits on share-interlocked multifirm groups. Other commentators have recognized spillovers or externalities as essential to any advantages of multifirm groups but attempt to discover such spillovers either in advertising (Hadley, 1970), or in research and development efforts (Goto, 1982).

Flath (1992) proposes a measure of indirect shareholding and computes it for the presidents' club firms of the six keiretsu. According to these computations, direct shareholding links in the keiretsu would have to be increased by about a fourth to achieve the equivalent added alignment of interests that indirect shareholding confers. This extent of indirect shareholding arguably is great enough to be the rationale for organization of cross-shareholding firms into groups.


Keiretsu shareholding ties are prominent among business practices or institutions peculiar to Japan and challenge economists to modify existing models or come up with new ones. The many peculiar practices forming the bases of U.S. antitrust cases over the years have posed similar challenges. Seemingly anomalous practices initially have repeatedly been branded as cartel devices or stratagems for securing or protecting monopoly. This was true for tie-in sales, exclusive dealing stipulations, customer restrictions, resale price maintenance, and delivered pricing systems. But in each instance, economic reasoning aided and supported by careful investigation ultimately has demonstrated that the practices in question often resolve problems in transacting or in some fashion promote an efficient organization of economic activity.

Observers have branded keiretsu shareholding ties as anticompetitive, hostile to free trade, and supportive of insularity and inefficiency. Economic reasoning and empirical observation paint quite a different picture. Stockholding in a trading partner bonds the trading partner to invest in transaction specific assets. Stockholding by a bank in its customers confers efficient incentives on the bank to monitor customers' choices and helps assure that truthful borrowers reveal information to the bank. Japanese antimonopoly laws recently have been amended to lower the legal limit of bank stockholding in any company from 10 to 5 percent. Complaints by U.S. trade negotiators and others threaten to provoke antitrust action against trading partners linked by shareholding ties. These developments are at the least disturbing. The economic models in the analysis here provide ample reasons to doubt the wisdom or appropriateness of antitrust action against keiretsu shareholding ties.

(1.)Sheard (1991) develops rather different models of keiretsu cross-shareholding that emphasize the advantages of reciprocal share interlocks in insulating firms from hostile takeovers and in assuring a reserve of liquid assets.


Flath, David, "Indirect Shareholding Within Japan's Business Groups," Economics Letters, 38, 1992, 223--227.

-----, "Shareholding in the Keiretsu, Japan's Financial Groups," The Review of Economics and Statistics, 75, 1993, 249--257.

Gilson, Stuart, "Bankruptcy, Boards, Banks, and Blockholders: Evidence on Changes in Corporate Ownership and Control When Firms Default," Journal of Financial Economics, 27:2, 1990, 355--388.

Goto, Akira, "Business Groups in a Market Economy," European Economic Review, 19, 1982, 53--70.

Hadley, Eleanor, Antitrust in Japan, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1970.

Hoshi, Takeo, Anil Kashyap, and David Scharfstein, "Corporate Structure, Liquidity, and Investment: Evidence from Japanese Panel Data," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 106:1, 1991, 33--65.

Jensen, Michael C., "Eclipse of the Public Corporation," Harvard Business Review, 5, 1989, 61--75.

Jensen, Michael C., and William H. Meckling, "Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure," Journal of Financial Economics, 3:4, 1976, 305--360.

Klein, Benjamin, Robert Crawford, and Armen Alchian, "Vertical Integration, Appropriable Rents and the Competitive Contracting Process," The Journal of Law and Economics, 84, 1978, 297--326.

Miyazaki, Yoshikazu, "Rapid Economic Growth in Post-War Japan--With Special Reference to 'Excessive Competition' and the Formation of 'Keiretsu'," The Developing Economies, 5, 1967, 329--350.

Kosei torihiki iinkai jimukyoku, keizai-bu jigyo-ka (Executive Office of the Fair Trade Commission of Japan, Enterprise Section, Economic Division), kigyo shudan no jitai ni tsuite (Concerning the State of Business Groups) Kosei Torihiki, 394, 1983, 20--24.

Lawrence, Robert Z., "Efficient or Exclusionist? The Import Behavior of Japanese Corporate Groups," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 1, 1991, 311--341.

Myers, Stewart C., and Nicholas S. Majluf, "Corporate Financing and Investment Decisions When Firms Have Information that Investors Do Not Have," Journal of Financial Economics, 13, 1984, 187--221.

Prowse, Stephen D., "Institutional Investment Patterns and Corporate Financial Behavior in the U.S. and Japan," Journal of Financial Economics, 27:1, 1990, 43--66.

Sheard, Paul, "The Economics of Interlocking Shareholding in Japan," Ricerche Economiche, 14:2--3, 1991, 421--448.

Supreme Court of the United States, United States v. E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., 1957.

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Author:Flath, David
Publication:Contemporary Economic Policy
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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