Melitz and Redding on heterogeneous firms and gains from trade

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In a recent VoxEU column, Marc Melitz and Stephen Redding describe the logic of Melitz (Ecma, 2003) and Arkolakis, Costinot, and Rodriguez-Clare (AER, 2012). Those should be familiar to Trade Diversion readers (e.g. ACR 2010 wp, Ossa 2012 wp). They then explain their new paper:

In Melitz and Redding (2013b), we show that firm-level responses to trade that generate higher productivity do in fact represent a new source of gains from trade.

  • We start with a model with heterogeneous firms, then compare it to a variant where we eliminate firm differences in productivity while keeping overall industry productivity constant.

We also keep all other model parameters (such as those governing trade costs and demand conditions) constant.

  • This ‘straw man’ model has no reallocations across firms as a result of trade and hence features no productivity response to trade.

Yet it is constructed so as to deliver the same welfare prior to trade liberalisation. We then show that, for any given reduction in trade costs, the model with firm heterogeneity generates higher aggregate welfare gains from trade because it features an additional adjustment margin (the productivity response to trade via reallocations). We also show that these differences are quantitatively substantial, representing up to a few percentage points of GDP. We thus conclude that firm-level responses to trade and the associated productivity changes have important consequences for the aggregate welfare gains from trade.

How can these findings be reconciled with the results obtained by Arkolakis, Costinot, and Rodriguez-Clare (2012)? Their approach compares models that are calibrated to deliver the same domestic trade share and trade elasticity (the sensitivity of aggregate trade to changes in trade costs). In so doing, this approach implicitly makes different assumptions about demand and trade costs conditions across the models that are under comparison (Simonovska and Waugh 2012). By assuming different levels of product differentiation across the models, and assuming different levels of trade costs, it is possible to have the different models predict the same gains from trade – even though they feature different firm-level responses. In contrast, our approach keeps all these ‘structural’ demand and cost conditions constant, and changes only the degree of firm heterogeneity (Melitz and Redding 2013b). This leads to different predictions for the welfare gains from trade.

One potential criticism of our approach is that one can estimate the trade elasticity (the sensitivity of aggregate trade to changes in trade costs) using aggregate trade data only – without requiring any specific assumptions about the firm-level responses to trade. Whatever assumptions are made about those firm-level responses (and the demand and trade-cost conditions), they should then be constructed so as to match that estimated aggregate elasticity. However, recent empirical work has shown that those underlying assumptions radically affect the measurement of the aggregate trade elasticity, and that this trade elasticity varies widely across sectors, countries, and the nature of the change in trade costs (see for example Helpman et al. 2008, Ossa 2012, and Simonovska and Waugh 2012). There is thus no single empirical trade-elasticity parameter that can be held constant across those different models.

Given the lack of a touchstone set of elasticities, we favour our approach to measuring the gains from trade arising from different models; one that maintains the same assumptions about demand and trade costs conditions across those models.

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