What economic activities are “tradable”?


I’ve had a couple conversations with graduate students in recent months about classifying industries or occupations by their tradability, so here’s a blog post reviewing some of the relevant literature.

A number of papers emphasize predictions that differ for tradable and non-tradable activities. Perhaps the most famous is Atif Mian and Amir Sufi’s Econometrica article showing that counties with a larger decline in housing net worth experienced a larger decline in non-tradable employment.

Mian and Sufi define industries’ tradability by two different means, one yielding a discrete measure and the other continuous variation:

The first method defines retail- and restaurant-related industries as non-tradable, and industries that show up in global trade data as tradable. Our second method is based on the idea that industries that rely on national demand will tend to be geographically concentrated, while industries relying on local demand will be more uniformly distributed. An industry’s geographical concentration index across the country therefore serves as an index of “tradability.”

Inferring tradability is hard. Since surveys of domestic transactions like the Commodity Flow Survey don’t gather data on the services sector, measures like “average shipment distance by industry” (Table 5a of the 2012 CFS) are only available for manufacturing, mining, and agricultural industries. Antoine Gervais and Brad Jensen have also pursued the idea of using industries’ geography concentration to reveal their tradability, allowing them to compare the level of trade costs in manufacturing and services. One shortcoming of this strategy is that the geographic concentration of economic activity likely reflects both sectoral variation in tradability and sectoral variation in the strength of agglomeration forces. That may be one reason that Mian and Sufi discretize the concentration measure, categorizing “the top and bottom quartile of industries by geographical concentration as tradable and non-tradable, respectively.”

We might also want to speak to the tradability of various occupations. Ariel Burstein, Gordon Hanson, Lin Tian, and Jonathan Vogel’s recent paper on the labor-market consequences of immigration varying with occupations’ tradability is a nice example. They use “the Blinder and Krueger (2013) measure of `offshorability’, which is based on professional coders’ assessments of the ease with which each occupation could be offshored” (p.20). When they look at industries (Appendix G), they use an approach similar to that of Mian and Sufi.

Are there other measure of tradability in the literature?


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