How big are the gains from trade?

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One of the most-mentioned trade papers of the last couple years is “New Trade Models, Same Old Gains?” by Arkolakis, Costinot & Rodriguez-Clare, now published in the AER. Their theoretical work shows that, for a broad class of theoretical models that includes the Armington, Eaton and Kortum (2002), and Melitz-Chaney approaches, the gains from trade are characterized by a formula involving only two numbers – the domestic expenditure share and the trade elasticity. The former can be straightforwardly obtained from the data. The latter needs to be estimated, which is more involved but feasible. ACR shows that their formula says that US welfare is about 1% higher than it would be under autarky.

In the words of Ralph Ossa, “either the gains from trade are small for most countries or the workhorse models of trade fail to adequately capture those gains.” Different people come down on different sides of that choice. Ed Prescott, for example, is clearly in the latter camp.

Ossa has a new paper, “Why Trade Matters After All“, aimed at reconciling this divide:

I show that accounting for cross-industry variation in trade elasticities greatly magnifies the estimated gains from trade. The main idea is as simple as it is general: While imports in the average industry do not matter too much, imports in some industries are critical to the functioning of the economy, so that a complete shutdown of international trade is very costly overall…

I develop a multi-industry Armington (1969) model of international trade featuring nontraded goods and intermediate goods and show what it implies for the measurement of the gains from trade…

Loosely speaking, the exponent of the aggregate formula is therefore the inverse of the average of the trade elasticities whereas the exponent of the industry-level formula is the average of the inverse of the trade elasticities which is different as long as the elasticities vary across industries.

allowing for cross-industry heterogeneity in the trade elasticities substantially increases the estimated gains from trade for all countries in the sample. For example, the estimated gains from trade of the US increase from 6.4 percent to 42.0 percent if I do not adjust for nontraded goods and intermediate goods and from 3.8 percent to 23.5 percent if I do…

the 10 percent most important industries account for more than 80 percent of the log gains from trade on average.


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