December 2004, Volume 90, Issue 8|
The Option Element in Contracting
90 Va. L. Rev. 2187 (2004)
The law of contracts has often treated options quite differently from other contractual transactions; for example, the characterization of a transaction as an option contract calls forth specially required formalities, but on the other hand often has the effect of releasing parties from doctrinal limitations on their contractual freedom, such as the duty to mitigate damages or the rule that holds excessively high liquidated damages void as penalties. Such differential treatment is challenging to explain from a functional viewpoint, in part because all contracts resemble options to the extent they are enforceable in terms of monetary damages, and in part because contracts that are nominally structured as explicit options can be close economic substitutes for contracts that are nominally structured as unconditional.
This Article sets out a theoretical account of the efficient design of option contracts—one that explains how contracting parties should strike the balance among option premium, option life, and exercise price, in order to maximize the expected surplus from their transaction. It shows that the tradeoffs between these various aspects of option contracts can affect the parties incentives to acquire and disclose information, to invest in relation specific investments, and to take efficient precautions against the event of breach. It then goes on to develop an organizing framework for private parties choosing whether and how to structure their contractual arrangements as options, and for policymakers choosing whether or how to regulate such private choices. In short, the appropriate balance between option premium, option life, and exercise price will depend on the relative importance that the one attaches to these various dimensions of incentives.
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