Category Archives: Trade

“The Rents from Sugar and Coercive Institutions: Removing the Sugar Coating,” C. Dippel, A. Greif & D. Trefler (2014)

Today, I’ve got two posts about some new work by Christian Dippel, an economic historian at UCLA Anderson who is doing some very interesting theoretically-informed history; no surprise to see Greif and Trefler as coauthors on this paper, as they are both prominent proponents of this analytical style.

The authors consider the following puzzle: sugar prices absolutely collapse during the mid and late 1800s, largely because of the rise of beet sugar. And yet, wages in the sugar-dominant British colonies do not appear to have fallen. This is odd, since all of our main theories of trade suggest that when an export price falls, the price of factors used to produce that export also fall (this is less obvious than just marginal product falling, but still true).

The economics seem straightforward enough, so what explains the empirical result? Well, the period in question is right after the end of slavery in the British Empire. There were lots of ways in which the politically powerful could use legal or extralegal means to keep wages from rising to marginal product. Suresh Naidu, a favorite of this blog, has a number of papers on labor coercion everywhere from the UK in the era of Master and Servant Law, to the US South post-reconstruction, to the Middle East today; actually, I understand he is writing a book on the subject which, if there is any justice, has a good shot at being the next Pikettyesque mainstream hit. Dippel et al quote a British writer in the 1850s on the Caribbean colonies: “we have had a mass of colonial legislation, all dictated by the most short-sighted but intense and disgraceful selfishness, endeavouring to restrict free labour by interfering with wages, by unjust taxation, by unjust restrictions, by oppressive and unequal laws respecting contracts, by the denial of security of [land] tenure, and by impeding the sale of land.” In particular, wages rose rapidly right after slavery ended in 1838, but those gains were clawed back by the end of 1840s due to “tenancy-at-will laws” (which let employers seize some types of property if workers left), trespass and land use laws to restrict freeholding on abandoned estates and Crown land, and emigration restrictions.

What does labor coercion have to do with wages staying high as sugar prices collapse? The authors write a nice general equilibrium model. Englishmen choose whether to move to the colonies (in which case they get some decent land) or to stay in England at the outside wage. Workers in the Caribbean can either take a wage working sugar which depends on bargaining power, or they can go work marginal freehold land. Labor coercion rules limit the ability of those workers to work some land, so the outside option of leaving the sugar plantation is worse the more coercive institutions are. Governments maximize a weighted combination of Englishmen and local wages, choosing the coerciveness of institutions. The weight on Englishmen wages is higher the more important sugar exports and their enormous rents are to the local economy. In partial equilibrium, then, if the price of sugar falls exogenously, the wages of workers on sugar plantations falls (as their MP goes down), the number of locals willing to work sugar falls, hence the number of Englishman willing to stay falls (as their profit goes down). With few plantations, sugar rents become less important, labor coercion falls, opening up more marginal land for freeholders, which causes even more workers to leave sugar plantations and improves wages for those workers. However, if sugar is very important, the government places a lot of weight on planter income in the social welfare function, hence responds to a fall in sugar prices by increasing labor coercion, lowering the outside option of workers, keeping them on the sugar plantations, where they earn lower wages than before for the usual economic reasons. That is, if sugar is really important, coercive institutions will be retained, the economic structure will be largely unchanged in response to a fall in world sugar prices, and hence wages will fall, but if sugar is only of marginal importance, a fall in sugar prices leads the politically powerful to leave, lowering the political strength of the planter class, thus causing coercive labor institutions to decline, allowing workers to reallocate such that wages approach marginal product; since the MP of options other than sugar may be higher than the wage paid to sugar workers, this reallocation caused by the decline of sugar prices can cause wages in the colony to increase.

The British, being British, kept very detailed records of things like incarceration rates, wages, crop exports, and the like, and the authors find a good deal of empirical evidence for the mechanism just described. To assuage worries about the endogeneity of planter power, they even get a subject expert to construct a measure of geographic suitability for sugar in each of 14 British Caribbean colonies, and proxies for planter power with the suitability of marginal land for sugar production. Interesting work all around.

What should we take from this? That legal and extralegal means can be used to keep factor rents from approaching their perfect competition outcome: well, that is something essentially every classical economist from Smith to Marx has described. The interesting work here is the endogeneity of factor coercion. There is still some debate about much we actually know about whether these endogenous institutions (or, even more so, the persistence of institutions) have first-order economic effects; see a recent series of posts by Dietz Vollrath for a skeptical view. I find this paper by Dippel et al, as well as recent work by Naidu and Hornbeck, are the cleanest examples of how exogenous shocks affect institutions, and how those institutions then affect economic outcomes of great importance.

December 2014 working paper (no RePEc IDEAS version)

“Information Frictions and the Law of One Price,” C. Steinwender (2014)

Well, I suppose there is no surprise that I really enjoyed this paper by Claudia Steinwender, a PhD candidate from LSE. The paper’s characteristics are basically my catnip: one of the great inventions in history, a policy question relevant to the present day, and a nice model to explain what is going on. The question she asks is how informational differences affect the welfare gains from trade. In the present day, the topic comes up over and over again, from the importance of cell phones to village farmers to the welfare impact of public versus closed financial exchanges.

Steinwender examines the completion of the transatlantic telegraph in July 1866. A number of attempts over a decade had been made in constructing this link; the fact that the 1866 line was stable was something of a surprise. Its completion lowered the time necessary to transmit information about local cotton prices in New York (from which much of the supply was sent) and Liverpool (where much of the cotton was bought; see Chapter 15 of Das Kapital for a nice empirical description of the cotton industry at this time). Before the telegraph, steam ships took 7 to 21 days, depending on weather conditions, to traverse the Pond. In a reduced form estimate, the mean price difference in each port, and the volatility of the price difference, fell; price shocks in Liverpool saw immediate responses in shipments from America, and the prices there; exports increases and become more volatile; and similar effects were seen from shocks to ship speed before the telegraph, or temporary technical problems with the line after July 1866. These facts come from amazingly well documented data in New York and UK newspapers.

Those facts are all well and good, but how to explain them, and how to interpret them? It is not at all obvious that information in trade with a durable good should matter. If you ship too much one day, then just store it and ship less in the next period, right? But note the reduced form evidence: it is not just that prices harmonize, but that total shipments increase. What is going on? Without the telegraph, the expected price tomorrow in Liverpool from the perspective of New York sellers is less variable (the conditional expectation conditions on less information about the underlying demand shock, since only the two-week-old autocorrelated demand shock data brought by steamship is available). When high demand in Liverpool is underestimated, then, exports are lower in the era before the telegraph. On the other hand, a low demand shock and a very low demand shock in Liverpool both lead to zero exports, since exporting is unprofitable. Hence, ignoring storage, better information increases the variance of perceived demand, with asymmetric effects from high and low demand shocks, leading to higher overall exports. Storage should moderate the volatility of exports, but not entirely, since a period of many consecutive high demand shocks will eventually exhaust the storage in Liverpool. That is, the lower bound on stored cotton at zero means that even optimal cotton storage does not fully harmonize prices in the presence of information frictions.

Steinwender confirms that intuition by solving for the equilibrium with storage numerically; this is actually a pretty gutsy move, since the numerical estimates are quantitatively quite different than what was observed in the data. Nonetheless, I think she is correct that we are fine interpreting these as qualitative comparative statics from an abstract model rather than trying to interpret their magnitude in any way. (Although I should note, it is not clear to me that we cannot sign the relevant comparative statics just because the model with storage cannot be solved analytically in its entirety…)

The welfare impact of information frictions with storage can be bounded below in a very simple way. If demand is overestimated in New York, then too much is exported, and though some of this cotton is stored, the lower bound at zero for storage means that the price in Liverpool is still too high. If demand in underestimated in New York, then too little is exported, and though some stored cotton might be sold, the lower bound on storage means that the price in Liverpool is still too low. A lower bound on the deadweight loss from those effects can be computed simply by knowing the price difference between the UK and the US and the slopes of the demand and supply curves; in the case of the telegraph, this deadweight loss is on the order of 8% of the value of US cotton exports to the UK, or equivalent to the DWL from a 6% tax on cotton. That is large. I am curious about the impact of this telegraph on US vis-a-vis Indian or Egyptian cotton imports, the main Civil War substitutes; information differences must distort the direction of trade in addition to its magnitude.

January 2014 working paper (No IDEAS version).

“Does Ethnicity Pay?,” Y. Huang, L. Jin & Y. Qian (2010)

Ethnic networks in trade and foreign investment are widespread. Avner Greif, in his medieval trade papers, has pointed out the role of ethnic trade groups in facilitating group punishment of deviations from implicitly contracted behavior in cases where contracts cannot be legally enforced. Ethnic investors may also have an advantage when investing in their home country, due to better knowledge of local profit opportunities.

Huang, Jin and Qian investigate the ethnic advantage using an amazing database of the universe of Chinese industrial firms. The database tags firms formed using FDI (perhaps as a joint venture) from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan; in the latter two cases, nearly 100 percent of Chinese FDI is from ethnic Chinese. Amazingly, firms funded with FDI from these regions performs worse, as measured by ROI, ROA or margins, than Chinese firms funded with FDI from other countries. In the first years after the firms are founded, there is only a small difference between Chinese-funded firms and others, but over time, the disadvantage grows; it is not just that ethnic Chinese investors invest in companies with low profitability at the beginning, but that they actually get worse over time. Restricting the sample just to Taiwanese electronics firms’ FDI compared to Korean electronics firms’ FDI, the Koreans make more profitable investments, both at the beginning and as measured by relative performance over time.

What’s going on here? It’s not just that ethnic Chinese are making low profit investments in their ancestral hometown; omitting Fujian and Guangdong, ancestral source of most HK, Macao and Taiwan Chinese, does not change the results in any qualitative way. Instead, it appears that ethnic Chinese-funded firms do substantially less work building up intangible assets and human capital in the firms they invest in. Stratifying the firms, if Chinese-funded firms would have grown their human capital (as proxied by employee wage) or intangible assets (as measured in accounting data) at the same rate as non Chinese-funded firms, there would have been no difference in ROI over time.

This leads to a bigger question, of course. Why would ethnic investors fail to build up intangible capital? Certainly there are anecdotal stories along these lines, particularly when it comes to wealthy minority investors; think Lebanese in West Africa, Fujianese in Indonesia, or Jewish firms in 19th century Europe. I don’t have a model that can explain such behavior, however. Any thoughts?

2010 NBER working paper (IDEAS version)

“An Elementary Theory of Comparative Advantage,” A. Costinot (2009)

Arnaud Costinot is one of many young economists doing interesting work in trade theory. In this 2009 Econometrica, he uses a mathematical technique familiar to any auction theorist – log-supermodularity – to derive a number of general results about trade which have long been seen as intractable, using few assumptions other than free trade and immobile factors of production.

Take two standard reasons for the existence of trade. First is differences in factor productivity. Country A ought produce good 1 and Country B good 2 if A has higher relative productivity in good 1 than B, f(1,A)/f(2,A) > f(1,B)/f(2,B). This is simply Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage. Ricardo showed that comparative advantage in good 1 by country A means that under (efficient) free trade, country A will actually produce more of good A than country B. The problem is when you have a large number of countries and a large number of goods; the simple algebra of Ricardo is no longer sufficient. Here’s the trick, then. Note that the 2-country, 2-good condition just says that the production function f is log-supermodular in countries and goods; “higher” countries are relatively more productive producing “higher” goods, under an appropriate ranking (for instance, more educated workforce countries might be “higher” and more complicated products might be “higher”; all that matters is that such an order exists). If the production function is log-supermodular, then aggregate production is also log-supermodular in goods and countries. Why? In this elementary model, each country specializes in producing only one good. If aggregate production is not log-supermodular, then maximizing behavior by countries means the marginal return to factors of production for a “low” good must be high in the “high” countries and low in the “low” countries. This cannot happen if countries are maximizing their incomes since each country can move factors of production around to different goods as they like and the production function is log-supermodular. What does this theorem tell me? It tells me that under trade with any number of countries and goods, there is a technology ladder, where “higher” countries produce “higher” goods. The proof is literally one paragraph, but it is impossible without the use of mathematics of lattices and supermodularity. Nice!

Consider an alternative model, Heckscher-Ohlin’s trade model which suggests that differences in factor endowments, not differences in technological or institutional capabilities which generate Ricardian comparative advantage, are what drives trade. Let the set of factors of production be distributed across countries according to F, and let technology vary across countries but only in a Hicks-neutral way (i.e., “technology” is just a parameter that scales aggregate production up or down, regardless of how that production is created or what that production happens to be). Let the production function, then, be A(c)h(g,p); that is, a country-specific technology parameter A(c) times a log-supermodular function of the goods produced g and the factors of production p. Assume further that factors are distributed such that “high” countries are relatively more-endowed with “high” factors of production, according to some order; many common distribution functions will give you this property. Under these assumptions, again, “high” countries produce “high” goods in a technology ladder. Why? Efficiency requires that each country assign “high” factors of production to “high” goods. The distributional assumption tells me that “high” factors are more likely to appear in “high” countries. Hence it can be proven using some simple results from lattice theory that “high” countries produce more “high” goods.

There are many further extensions, the most interesting one being that even though the extensions of Ricardo and Heckscher-Ohlin both suggest a ladder of “higher” and “lower” goods, these ladders might not be the same, and hence if both effects are important, we need more restrictive assumptions on the production function to generate interesting results about the worldwide distribution of trade. Costinot also points out that the basic three type (country, good, factor of production) model with log-supermodularity assumptions fits many other fields, since all it roughly says is that heterogeneous agents (countries) with some density of characteristics (goods and factors of productions) then sort into outcomes according to some payoff function of the three types; e.g., heterogeneous firms may be choosing different financial instruments depending on heterogeneous productivity. Ordinal discussion of which types of productivity lead firms to choose which types of financial instruments (or any similar problem) are often far, far easier using log-supermodularity arguments that using functional forms plus derivatives.

Final 2009 ECTA (IDEAS version). Big thumbs up to Costinot for putting the final, published version of his papers on his website.

“Gains From Trade Without Lump-Sum Compensation,” A. Dixit & V. Norman (1986)

Let’s take a brief respite from the job market; I’ve noticed some foolish things said about free trade in the news recently. Yes, Ricardo showed that trade in two goods generates surplus for both countries under free trade. Samuelson later gave a more formal, general proof of the benefits of Ricardian trade for a nation, though his theorem with Stopler explains which individuals may be made worse off. Samuelson also showed that even when individuals are worse off, there is enough surplus that transfers can be made to the harmed individuals such that free trade is a Pareto improvement on autarky. Note that the last sentence is absolutely not implied by Ricardo, and how could it have been: he didn’t have the apparatus of ordinal utility nor the concept of Pareto improvement nor the idea of the Hicksian demand curve.

All of the above is true, but it does not justify the critique that, since we don’t always redistribute gains from trade to the losers, free trade may make us worse off under some social welfare functions. There turn out to be many ways, aside from direct income redistribution, to generate the Pareto improvement. Dixit and Norman, in a 1986 JIE, give a great example of one. Disallow transfers, but allow for arbitrary taxation of goods.

It is easy to show that free trade plus commodity taxes can leave everybody with exactly the same welfare as under autarky. Let consumers demand x0 under autarky. Under free trade, a new price vector for producers leads to equilibrium changes in production for Ricardian reasons. The government then sets a commodity tax such that consumers face the same prices they faced in autarky, with the government using the tax revenue to buy the excess supply of goods and then burning them. Everyone is exactly as well off as they were before. Now, rather than burning surplus, if there are any goods where some consumers are either all net sellers or all net buyers, then (using the case where all consumers are buyers) use the tax on that good to give it a price slightly below the autarky price. All the net buyers are better off, and those who were indifferent between buying and selling are also indirectly better off. In a non-exchange economy, we can always find at least one good where all the consumers are net on one side of the market.

Later work expanded this idea into a more general model; in particular, with limits on factor mobility, we don’t get a Pareto improvement, so direct payments to immobile factors (such as job market assistance to fired workers) may still be necessary. And of course, learning-by-doing and other forms of increasing returns to scale in production have all of the usual caveats that New Trade Theorists have mentioned. Nonetheless, as a policy perspective, if you are worried about the equity problems from increased openness to trade on the consumption side, taxing the goods that become cheaper as a result of trade is a simple fix. And, unlike direct redistribution, in a large economy it is more or less incentive compatible!

Final 1986 JIE copy (IDEAS version). As an aside, I remembered this old Dixit article when reading his recollections of the great Paul Samuelson in the newest Annual Rewiew of Economics. Dixit mentions a story I hadn’t come across before. In the late 70s, after the Cambridge Capital Controversy had died down, Samuelson joked in the faculty lounge that the whole debate had been nothing but a neoclassical conspiracy to keep far left-wing attackers so busy they don’t notice the rest of our schemes! (Joking aside, Dixit has a nicely pithy summation of the reswitching debate, which sums up well what you should know about it if you are a working economist: the rate of interest is not unique and is uninformative about many interesting phenomena, but turnpike theorems and other similar statements mean that a lot of the rest of growth and general equilibrium theory is still safe.)


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