Regulating Contract Formation: Precontractual Reliance, Sunk Costs, and Market Structure


This Article challenges the plausibility of the prospect of underinvestment in precontractual reliance (PCR). We argue that a negotiating party is motivated to invest in PCR not only through her expectation to extract the benefits that the investment yields (Added-Value Motivation), but also through the effect of the investment on her position vis-à-vis her competitors (Competition-Based Motivation). We demonstrate that under plausible assumptions, when a negotiating party operates in a relatively competitive market, the Competition-Based Motivation is frequently sufficient to induce optimal PCR, even without appropriate contractual provisions or legal intervention.

We suggest several normative implications. First, legal intervention that is aimed at encouraging PCR is generally unwarranted. The forces of competition provide adequate investment incentives, and the regulation of contract formation should only facilitate their operation. We thus justify the reluctance of both positive law and commercial parties from imposing precontractual liability in cases of failed negotiations.

Second, the analysis demonstrates that when one party (e.g., the supplier) operates in a competitive market of “professional” repeating players, the other party (e.g., the purchaser) is better off limiting the number of bidders (suppliers) with whom he negotiates. This result suggests that in such cases, from an efficiency perspective, a party (including a public authority) should be allowed to limit the number of suppliers with whom he conducts negotiations. By contrast, when suppliers operate in a competitive market of accidental, one-time players, the purchaser has an interest in encouraging excessive entry of suppliers into the negotiations, and legal intervention aimed at regulating the purchaser’s behavior can be justified. This result may justify, for instance, imposing a duty on employers to pay for training periods of potential employees.

Third, legal intervention is justified in order to prevent manipulation of bidder’s assessment of their prospects to receive the contract. The analysis supports a rule that prohibits an auctioneer from receiving an offer that was submitted outside of the auction’s procedures, and a rule that disallows changing “the rules of the game” after the bidders already invested in PCR.

Fourth, we show that when legal intervention is justified in the negotiation stage, the appropriate measure of damages that should be awarded is the plaintiff’s expectation interest. We also demonstrate that the difficulty in assessing this value when a contract is not formed can be resolved by approximating this value according to the sum of PCR for all bidders. Finally, we offer a new rationale for imposing disclosure duties (as well as other mandatory requirements to invest in PCR). We show that, in certain cases, such investment is allocated to the party who operates in a competitive market, even if it is efficient for the other party to bear this cost. Legal intervention is essential in such cases to resolve this inefficiency in the allocation of PCR. We refer in this respect to the case of Laidlaw v. Organ, and demonstrate why imposing a duty to disclose information is not expected to adversely affect a party’s incentive to invest in acquiring information.


Contracts | Economics | Law and Economics

Date of this Version

February 2006