Category Archives: Trade

“Eliminating Uncertainty in Market Access: The Impact of New Bridges in Rural Nicaragua,” W. Brooks & K. Donovan (2018)

It’s NBER Summer Institute season, when every bar and restaurant in East Cambridge, from Helmand to Lord Hobo, is filled with our tribe. The air hums with discussions of Lagrangians and HANKs and robust estimators. And the number of great papers presented, discussed, or otherwise floating around inspires.

The paper we’re discussing today, by Wyatt Brooks at Notre Dame and Kevin Donovan at Yale SOM, uses a great combination of dynamic general equilibrium theory and a totally insane quasi-randomized experiment to help answer an old question: how beneficial is it for villages to be connected to the broader economy? The fundamental insight requires two ideas that are second nature for economists, but are incredibly controversial outside our profession.

First, going back to Nobel winner Arthur Lewis if not much earlier, economists have argued that “structural transformation”, the shift out of low-productivity agriculture to urban areas and non-ag sectors, is fundamental to economic growth. Recent work by Hicks et al is a bit more measured – the individuals who benefit from leaving agriculture generally already have, so Lenin-type forced industrialization is a bad idea! – but nonetheless barriers to that movement are still harmful to growth, even when those barriers are largely cultural as in the forthcoming JPE by Melanie Morton and the well-named Gharad Bryan. What’s so bad about the ag sector? In the developing world, it tends to be small-plot, quite-inefficient, staple-crop production, unlike the growth-generating positive-externality-filled, increasing-returns-type sectors (on this point, Romer 1990). There are zero examples of countries becoming rich without their labor force shifting dramatically out of agriculture. The intuition of many in the public, that Gandhi was right about the village economy and that structural transformation just means dreadful slums, is the intuition of people who lack respect for individual agency. The slums may be bad, but look how they fill up everywhere they exist! Ergo, how bad must the alternative be?

The second related misunderstanding of the public is that credit is unimportant. For folks near subsistence, the danger of economic shocks pushing you near that dangerous cutpoint is so fundamental that it leads to all sorts of otherwise odd behavior. Consider the response of my ancestors (and presumably the author of today’s paper’s ancestors, given that he is a Prof. Donovan) when potato blight hit. Potatoes are an input to growing more potatoes tomorrow, but near subsistence, you have no choice but to eat your “savings” away after bad shocks. This obviously causes problems in the future, prolonging the famine. But even worse, to avoid getting in a situation where you eat all your savings, you save more and invest less than you otherwise would. Empirically, Karlan et al QJE 2014 show large demand for savings instruments in Ghana, and Cynthia Kinnan shows why insurance markets in the developing world are incomplete despite large welfare gains. Indeed, many countries, including India, make it illegal to insure oneself against certain types of negative shocks, as Mobarak and Rosenzweig show. The need to save for low probability, really negative, shocks may even lead people to invest in assets with highly negative annual returns; on this, see the wonderfully-titled Continued Existence of Cows Disproves Central Tenets of Capitalism? This is all to say: the rise of credit and insurance markets unlocks much more productive activity, especially in the developing world, and it is not merely the den of exploitative lenders.

Ok, so insurance against bad shocks matters, and getting out of low-productivity agriculture may matter as well. Let’s imagine you live in a tiny village which is often separated from bigger towns, geographically. What would happen if you somehow lowered the cost of reaching those towns? Well, we’d expect goods-trade to radically change – see the earlier post on Dave Donaldson’s work, or the nice paper on Brazilian roads by Morten and Oliveria. But the benefits of reducing isolation go well beyond just getting better prices for goods.

Why? In the developing world, most people have multiple jobs. They farm during the season, work in the market on occasion, do construction, work as a migrant, and so on. Imagine that in the village, most jobs are just farmwork, and outside, there is always the change for day work at a fixed wage. In autarky, I just work on the farm, perhaps my own. I need to keep a bunch of savings because sometimes farms get a bunch of bad shocks: a fire burns my crops, or an elephant stomps on them. Running out of savings risks death, and there is no crop insurance, so I save precautionarily. Saving means I don’t have as much to spend on fertilizer or pesticide, so my yields are lower.

If I can access the outside world, then when my farm gets bad shocks and my savings runs low, I leave the village and take day work to build them back up. Since I know I will have that option, I don’t need to save as much, and hence I can buy more fertilizer. Now, the wage for farmers in the village (including the implicit wage that would keep me on my own farm) needs to be higher since some of these ex-farmers will go work in town, shifting village labor supply left. This higher wage pushes the amount of fertilizer I will buy down, since high wages reduce the marginal productivity of farm improvements. Whether fertilizer use goes up or down is therefore an empirical question, but at least we can say that those who use more fertilizer, those who react more to bad shocks by working outside the village, and those whose savings drops the most should be the same farmers. Either way, the village winds up richer both for the direct reason of having an outside option, and for the indirect reason of being able to reduce precautionary savings. That is, the harm is coming both from the first moment, the average shock to agricultural productivity, but also the second moment, its variance.

How much does this matter is practice? Brooks and Donovan worked with a NGO that physically builds bridges in remote areas. In Nicaragua, floods during the harvest season are common, isolating villages for days at a time when the riverbed along the path to market turns into a raging torrent. In this area, bridges are unnecessary when the riverbed is dry: the land is fairly flat, and the bridge barely reduces travel time when the riverbed isn’t flooded. These floods generally occur exactly during the growing season, after fertilizer is bought, but before crops are harvested, so the goods market in both inputs and outputs is essentially unaffected. And there is nice quasirandom variation: of 15 villages which the NGO selected as needing a bridge, 9 were ruled out after a visit by a technical advisor found the soil and topography unsuitable for the NGO’s relatively inexpensive bridge.

The authors survey villages the year before and the two years after the bridges are built, as well as surveying a subset of villagers with cell phones every two weeks in a particular year. Although N=15 seems worrying for power, the within-village differences in labor market behavior are sufficient that properly bootstrapped estimates can still infer interesting effects. And what do you find? Villages with bridges have many men shift from working in the village to outside in a given week, the percentage of women working outside nearly doubles with most of the women entering the labor force in order to work, the wages inside the village rise while wages outside the village do not, the use of fertilizer rises, village farm profits rise 76%, and the effect of all this is most pronounced on poorer households physically close to the bridge.

All this is exactly in line with the dynamic general equilibrium model sketched out above. If you assumed that bridges were just about market access for goods, you would have missed all of this. If you assumed the only benefit was additional wages outside the village, you would miss a full 1/3 of the benefit: the general equilibrium effect of shifting out workers who are particularly capable working outside the village causes wages to rise for the farm workers who remain at home. These particular bridges show an internal rate of return of nearly 20% even though they do nothing to improve market access for either inputs and outputs! And there are, of course, further utility benefits from reducing risk, even when that risk reduction does not show up in income through the channel of increased investment.

November 2017 working paper, currently R&R at Econometrica (RePEc IDEAS version. Both authors have a number of other really interesting drafts, of which I’ll mention two. Brooks, in a working paper with Joseph Kaposki and Yao Li, identify a really interesting harm of industrial clusters, but one that Adam Smith would have surely identified: they make collusion easier. Put all the firms in an industry in the same place, and establish regular opportunities for their managers to meet, and you wind up getting much less variance in markups than firms which are induced to locate in these clusters! Donovan, in a recent RED with my friend Chris Herrington, calibrates a model to explain why both college attendance and the relative cognitive ability of college grads rose during the 20th century. It’s not as simple as you might think: a decrease in costs, through student loans of otherwise, only affects marginal students, who are cognitively worse than the average existing college student. It turns out you also need a rising college premium and more precise signals of high schoolers’ academic abilities to get both patterns. Models doing work to extract insight from data – as always, this is the fundamental reason why economics is the queen of the social sciences.


Douglass North, An Economist’s Historian

Sad news today arrives, as we hear that Douglass North has passed away, living only just longer than his two great compatriots in Cliometrics (Robert Fogel) and New Institutional Economics (Ronald Coase). There will be many lovely pieces today, I’m sure, on North’s qualitative and empirical exploration of the rise of institutions as solutions to agency and transaction cost problems, a series of ideas that continues to be enormously influential. No economist today denies the importance of institutions. If economics is the study of the aggregation of rational choice under constraints, as it is sometimes thought to be, then North focused our mind on the origin of the constraints rather the choice or its aggregation. Why do states develop? Why do guilds, and trade laws, and merchant organizations, and courts, appear, and when? How does organizational persistence negatively affect the economy over time, a question pursued at great length by Daron Acemoglu and his coauthors? All important questions, and it is not clear that there are better answers than the ones North provided.

But North was not, first and foremost, a historian. His PhD is in economics, and even late in life he continued to apply the very most cutting edge economic tools to his studies of institutions. I want to discuss today a beautiful piece of his, “The Role of Institutions in the Revival of Trade”, written jointly with Barry Weingast and Paul Milgrom in 1990. This is one of the fundamental papers in “Analytic Narratives”, as it would later be called, a school which applied formal economic theory to historical questions; I have previously discussed here a series of papers by Avner Greif and his coauthors which are the canonical examples.

Here is the essential idea. In the late middle ages, long distance trade, particularly at “Fairs” held in specific places at specific times, arose again in Western Europe. Agency problems must have been severe: how do you keep people from cheating you, from stealing, from selling defective goods, or from reneging on granted credit? A harmonized body of rules, the Merchant Law, appeared across many parts of Western Europe, with local courts granting judgments on the basis of this Law. In the absence of nation-states, someone with a negative judgment could simply leave the local city where the verdict was given. The threat of not being able to sell in the future may have been sufficient to keep merchants fair, but if the threat of future lost business was the only credible punishment, then why were laws and courts needed at all? Surely merchants could simply let it be known that Johann or Giuseppe is a cheat, and that one shouldn’t deal with them? There is a puzzle here, then: it appears that the set of punishments the Merchant Law could give are identical to the set of “punishments” one receives for having a bad reputation, so why then did anybody bother with courts and formal rules? In terms of modern theory, if relational contracts and formal contracts can offer identical punishments for deviating from cooperation, and formal contracts are costly, then why doesn’t everyone simply rely on relational contracts?

Milgrom, North and Weingast consider a simple repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two agents with a sufficiently high discount rate can sustain cooperation in a Prisoner’s Dilemma using tit-for-tat: if you cheat me today, I cheat you tomorrow. Of course, the Folk Theorem tells us that cooperation can be sustained using potentially more complex punishment strategies in infinitely repeated games with any number of players, although a fundamental idea in the repeated games literature is that it may be necessary to punish people who do not themselves punish when they are meant to do so. In a repeated prisoner’s dilemma with an arbitrary number of players who randomly match each period, cooperation can be sustained in a simple way: you cheat anyone you match with if they cheated their previous trading partner and their previous trading partner did not themselves cheat their partner two rounds ago, and otherwise cooperate.

The trick, though, is that you need to know the two-periods-back history of your current trading partner and their last trading partner. Particularly with long-distance trade, you might frequently encounter traders you don’t know even indirectly. Imagine that every period you trade with someone you have never met before, and who you will never meet again (the “Townsend turnpike”, with two infinite lines of traders moving in opposite directions), and imagine that you do not know the trading history of anyone you match with. In this incomplete information game, there is no punishment for cheating: you cheat the person you match with today, and no one you meet with tomorrow will ever directly or indirectly learn about this. Hence cooperation is not sustained.

What we need, then, is an institution that first collects a sufficient statistic for the honesty of traders you might deal with, that incentivizes merchants to bother to check this sufficient statistic and punish people who have cheated, and that encourages people to report if they have been cheated even if this reporting is personally costly. That is, “institutions must be designed both to keep the traders adequately informed of their responsibilities and to motivate them to do their duties.”

Consider an institution LM. When you are matched with a trading partner, you can query LM at cost Q to find out if there are any “unpaid judgments” against your trading partner, and this query is common knowledge to you and your partner. You and your partner then play a trading game which is a Prisoner’s Dilemma. After trading, and only if you paid the query cost Q, when you have been cheated you can pay another cost C to take your trading partner to trial. If your partner cheated you in the Prisoner’s Dilemma and you took them to trial, you win a judgment penalty of J which the cheater can either voluntarily pay you at cost c(J) or which the cheater can ignore. If the cheater doesn’t pay a judgment, LM lists them as having “unpaid judgments”.

Milgrom, North and Weingast show that, under certain conditions, the following is an equilibrium where everyone always cooperates: if you have no unpaid judgments, you always query LM. If no one queries LM, or if there are unpaid judgments against your trading partner, you defect in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, else you cooperate. If both parties queried LM and only one defects in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the other trader pays cost C and takes the cheater to the LM for judgment. The conditions needed for this to be an equilibrium are that penalties for cheating are high enough, but not so high that cheaters prefer to retire to the countryside rather than pay them, and that the cost of querying LM is not too high. Note how the LM equilibrium encourages anyone to pay the personal cost of checking their trading partner’s history: if you don’t check, then you can’t go to LM for judgment if you are cheated, hence you will definitely be cheated. The LM also encourages people to pay the personal cost of putting a cheater on trial, because that is the only way to get a judgment decision, and that judgment is actually paid in equilibrium. Relying on reputation in the absence of an institution may not work if communicating reputation of someone who cheated you is personally costly: if you need to print up posters that Giuseppe cheated you, but can otherwise get no money back from Giuseppe, you are simply “throwing good money after bad” and won’t bother. The LM institution provides you an incentive to narc on the cheats.

Note also that in equilibrium, the only cost of the system is the cost of querying, since no one cheats. That is, in the sense of transactions costs, the Law Merchant may be a very low-cost institution: it generates cooperation even though only one piece of information, the existence of unpaid judgments, needs to be aggregated and communicated, and it generates cooperation among a large set of traders that never personally interact by using a single centralized “record-keeper”. Any system that induces cooperation must, at a minimum, inform a player whether their partner has cheated in the past. The Law Merchant system does this with no other costs in equilibrium, since in equilibrium, no one cheats, no one goes for judgment, and no resources are destroyed paying fines.

That historical institutions develop largely to limit transactions costs is a major theme in North’s work, and this paper is a beautiful, highly formal, explication of that broad Coasean idea. Our motivating puzzle – why use formal institutions when reputation provides precisely the same potential for punishment? – can be answered simply by noting that reputation requires information, and the cost-minimizing incentive-compatible way to aggregate and share that information may require an institution. The Law Merchant arises not because we need a way to punish offenders, since in the absence of the nation-state the Law Merchant offers no method for involuntary punishment beyond those that exist in its absence; and yet, in its role reducing costs in the aggregation of information, the Law proves indispensable. What a beautiful example of how theory can clarify our observations!

“The Role of Institutions in the Revival of Trade” appeared in Economics and Politics 1.2, March 1990, and extensions of these ideas to long distance trade with many centers are considered in the papers by Avner Greif and his coauthors linked at the beginning of this post. A broad philosophical defense of the importance of transaction costs to economic history is North’s 1984 essay in the Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics. Two other titans of economics have also recently passed away, I’m afraid. Herbert Scarf, the mathematician whose work is of fundamental importance to modern market design, was eulogized by Ricky Vohra and Al Roth. Nate Rosenberg, who with Zvi Griliches was the most important thinker on the economics of invention, was memorialized by Joshua Gans and Joel West.

“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.)

%d bloggers like this: