Category Archives: Uncategorized

When international shipping is cheaper than domestic

The Washington Post headlined this “The Postal Service is losing millions a year to help you buy cheap stuff from China“:

This strange consequence of postal law was less significant when the mail was mostly personal correspondence. But as Chinese companies began logging on to Web marketplaces like eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba, they started taking advantage of the shipping deal to sell directly to American consumers. And so it’s never been easier to get something cheap and Chinese delivered to your door for a startlingly low price: $4.64 for a digital alarm clock; $2.50 for a folding knife; $1.88 for an iPhone cable — all with shipping included…

Countries used to provide this forwarding service to each other for free, but in 1969 an update to this postal treaty called for small fees (called terminal dues) on each mail piece. Since then the dues have grown, and the payment system has become labyrinthine. In most cases, however, postal services still charge each other less than they would charge their own citizens for moving a package across the country.

According to the terms set out in Universal Postal Union treaty, the USPS in 2014 gets paid no more than about $1.50 for delivering a one-pound package from a foreign carrier, which makes it hard to cover costs. [1] The USPS inspector general’s office estimated that the USPS lost $79 million in fiscal year 2013 delivering this foreign treaty mail. (The Postal Service itself declined to provide specific figures.) …

At the latest round of negotiations in 2012, countries did agree to raise fees slightly. The United States will get to charge about 13 percent more every year from 2014 to 2017. Under the new terms, the inspector general’s office believes that the USPS will start to lose less money on inbound mail. [3]

All this should be a reminder that any trade deal has winners and losers and unintended consequences. Internet commerce suddenly made the terms of a long-standing mail treaty a competitive advantage for Chinese merchants, and U.S. importers like the McGraths have been feeling the squeeze. But this same system also means that average Americans can get a really sweet deal on an iPhone case shaped like an Absolut bottle.

Hat tip to Corinne Low.

Recently on Twitter

While I’ve fallen behind on blogging, I do a better job of staying active on Twitter. In the last two weeks, @TradeDiversion has tweeted about:

Look what I found…

In the course of researching my job market paper, I read a lot of old or obscure literature related to the Linder hypothesis. It yielded some real gems. Unfortunately, I also unearthed some big disappointments. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

For the moment, here’s the abstract of McPherson, Redfearn and Tieslau – “International trade and developing countries: an empirical investigation of the Linder hypothesis” in Applied Economics (2001), an article with 44 citations in Google Scholar:

This paper presents empirical evidence in support of the Linder hypothesis for five of the six East African developing countries studied here: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda. This finding implies that these countries trade more intensively with others who have similar per capita income levels, as predicted by Linder. The contributions of this research are three-fold. First, new information is provided on the Linder hypothesis by focusing on developing countries. Second, this is one of very few analyses to capture both time-series and cross-section elements of the trade relationship by employing a panel data set. Third, the empirical methodology used in the analysis corrects a major shortcoming in the existing literature by using a censored dependent variable in estimation.

Now, here’s the abstract of Bukhari, Ahmad, Alam, Bukhari, and Butt – “An Empirical Analysis of the Linder Theory of International Trade for South Asian Countries” in The Pakistan Development Review (2005), with zero citations in Google Scholar:

This paper presents empirical evidence in support of the Linder theory of international trade for three of the South Asian countries, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. This finding implies that these countries trade more intensively with countries of other regions, which may have similar per capita income levels, as predicted by Linder in his hypothesis. The contribution of this research is threefold: first, there is new information on the Linder hypothesis by focusing on South Asian countries; second, this is one of very few analyses to capture both time-series and cross-section elements of the trade relationship by employing a panel data set; third, the empirical methodology used in this analysis corrects a major shortcoming in the existing literature by using a censored dependent variable in estimation.

It continues like this, paragraph for paragraph. Finally, we arrive at Table 2 of each paper. Here’s McPherson, Redfearn and Tieslau:

McPherson

And here’s Bukhari, Ahmad, Alam, Bukhari, and Butt:

Bhukari

That’s Bangladesh-Kenya, India-Ethiopia, and Pakistan-Uganda with identical rows. The same thing occurs in Table 3. It continues, all the way through the concluding paragraphs.

A prescient note on the home-market effect by Max Corden

Paul Krugman’s 1980 AER paper formally introduced the home-market effect. In introducing his result, he mentions (p.955):

Notice that this argument is wholly dependent on increasing returns; in a world of diminishing returns strong domestic demand for a good will tend to make it an import rather than an export. But the point does not come through clearly in models where increasing returns take the form of external economies (see W. M. Corden). One of the main contributions of the approach developed in this paper is that by using this approach the home market can be given a simple formal justification.

I doubt that very many people have looked at the Corden reference, as it appeared in a 1970 conference volume titled Studies in international economics. Monash Conference papers. Here’s an excerpt from the surprisingly prescient three-page note:

A note on economies of scale, the size of the domestic market and the pattern of trade

Professor Grubel suggests that a country will tend to produce and export those products or ‘styles’ of products for which it has a relatively large domestic market. He explains this in terms of economies of scale. This is essentially the ‘Linder hypothesis’ which has obtained some empirical support, as well as being intuitively plausible. But it does raise an interesting theoretical question which has not, to my knowledge, been explored. In a simple static two-product two-country model with no transport costs, with economies of scale and with the demand patterns differing between the two countries it does not follow that a country will export that product to which its own demand pattern is biased. In that sort of model, as is well-known, one can say only that at least one of the two countries, and possibly both, will specialise, but one cannot say which country will specialise in which good. From the point of view of maximising potential world income there will be an optimum pattern of specialisation, but this will not depend in any simple predictable way on differences between the demand patterns of the two countries. Thus we cannot obtain the Linder hypothesis from this simple model. The question then is: What else must we put into the model? Is it transport costs, or is it rather something ‘dynamic’ ? In order to focus on the main point I shall now assume that the two countries are of equal size, that their factor endowments and production functions are identical, and that any differences between the factor-intensities of the two products are not large. Hence the two countries have identical convex production transformation curves. They differ only in their demand patterns. Country A’s demand pattern is biased towards product X and country B’s towards product Y. Needless to say, the discussion to follow is very tentative…

A third approach might be to introduce transport costs. Transporting goods from one country to another uses up resources, and from the point of view of maximising world income it will pay to minimise transport costs. Given that in the final equilibrium both countries will specialise, each country should then specialise on the good for which it has the relatively greater demand, since this will minimise transporting. This seems obvious. Provided we do not introduce other complications, trade along Linder lines will maximise potential world income. But it does not seem so easy to prove that trade will actually assume that pattern. Suppose that, for some reason, one starts with the trade flow in the opposite direction. One might explain this in terms of some dynamic considerations. Will there then be a natural tendency for the pattern of specialisation and hence the flow of trade to reverse itself? It does not seem obvious that this would be so. There is scope for further theoretical explorations here.

As Krugman himself has commented: “Now it is always tricky to reread old texts in the light of subsequent information; knowing what actually happened, you can probably find a prophecy of Nostradamus that fits the event, and knowing subsequent developments in economic theory, you can probably find most of it hinted at in Ibn Khaldun.” Still, I think Corden was onto something in 1970.

Follow @TradeDiversion on Twitter

You’ve no doubt noticed that recently I’ve only been posting once or twice per month. However, I am regularly sharing links and brief comments on Twitter, so you should follow @TradeDiversion. Recently on the Twitter feed (but not the blog):

Alex Marshall on cities

Here’s an analytic framework that’s almost surely wrong:

What do market economies have to do with cities?

Well, obviously cities are economic entities. To survive, a city or a region has to make money; it has to export more than it imports, in dollar terms. Cities that decline are on the losing side of this equation. So if you care about cities, which I do, it leads you to think about how they function as economic entities.

Alex Marshall’s new book doesn’t mention exports in the context of cities, so I don’t have a way to follow up on the logic underlying this claim. But trade surpluses are not at the heart of urban growth in any urban economics literature I’ve read.

[HT: Aaron Brown]