Tag Archives: institutions

Assessing the Determinants of Economic Growth in South East Asia

The Historical State, Local Collective Action, and Economic Development in Vietnam

By Melissa Dell (Harvard University), Nathaniel Lane (Stockholm University), Pablo Querubin (New York University)

Abstract – This study examines how the historical state conditions long-run development, using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a strong centralized state in which the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire, which followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. Using a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary, the study shows that areas historically under a strong state have higher living standards today and better economic outcomes over the past 150 years. Rich historical data document that in villages with a strong historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through civil society and local government. This suggests that the strong historical state crowded in village-level collective action and that these norms persisted long after the original state disappeared.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/nbrnberwo/23208.htm

Circulated by nep-his on 2017/03/19

Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)

What was the impact of the ancient Vietnamese Dai Viet empire in promoting long-term economic development? That is the main question the authors try to assess. Their inquiry is embedded within the now large literature on the importance of culture and institutions, as deep determinants of growth. The contribution the paper makes is, however, not restricted to adding one more piece of evidence in favor of it, but, more importantly, in providing empirical support for a specific transmission channel: how state capacity can be built through time via the fostering of local self-organization capabilities.

The paper’s main story builds on the idea that two distinct meta-societies existed within East Asia, and idea around which, by the way, there is general agreement. One of these societies based on Chinese precepts, prevalent in the Northeastern region; and other spread in the Southeast throughout the Indian Ocean.  Societies of the former category were historically constituted around a sort of Weberian professional bureaucracy that consolidated the working of a central state. The latter depended more on informal networking mechanisms among local elites to survive, and hence, tended to promote hierarchical patriarchal relationships.

Today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam (henceforth Vietnam) is an interesting case study precisely because it arose out of the union of those two distinct cultures. The northern part, the Dai Viet, is an example of a Sino-style state, while the southern part of Vietnam (initially part of the Champa State and later as part of the larger Khmer Empire) resulted from a Indo-style society.  Figure 1 below offers map of present day Vietnam aligned with the size of the historical Dai Viet empire. Figure 1 suggests the Dai Viet expanded southwards through time but ended up establishing its final frontier in 1698 (orange color). It is this border the authors think provides a natural experiment that allows a clean regression discontinuity (RD) strategy that permits the disentanglement of the effect of being part of a bureaucratized state vis a vis a patriarchal state.


Figure 1: Dai Viet Historical Boundaries (Dell et al., 2017)

The use of the RD design is appropriate, the authors argue, because the chosen border resulted from exogenous contingencies that do not reflect any difference in future economic potential. The 1698 demarcation was settled on the ridges of a river, but there was nothing else particular to it that made that boundary preferable to other potential borders. The Dai Viet stopped its expansion because of constrains imposed by a local civil war (something that has nothing to do with the river itself). Moreover, the environmental characteristics of both sides of the river are almost identical (or vary smoothly), so there is no important geographical difference either. The only thing that changes abruptly is that on the east shore of the 1698 border, Dai Viet settlers occupied and controlled the land, while Khmer villagers occupied and controlled the land to the west of the river. Another possible counterargument to the use of the 1698 border as a natural experiment is the relevance of migration: if settlers moved across villages (at any time after the establishment of the original border), then the boundary becomes inconsequential. The authors argue that, even though they do not have historical data to control for it, there is qualitative evidence that refers to negative attitudes towards outsiders within the villages, which constitutes an important constraint to any major migratory flow. Today, both sides are part of Vietnam. It is then possible to assess if Die Viet institutions still exert some type of effect in current economic outcomes.

Figure 2 portraits the main outcome of the paper. Using household expenditure data from recent censuses (2002-2012), the authors find that today, villages situated along the historical Die Viet side of the border earn a third more than those communities that are situated on the historical Khmer side (Within the figure, the darker the zone depict lower earnings).


Figure 2a: Household Consumption, RD Graph (Dell et al., 2017)

The authors, however, not content with establishing the effects on current outcomes, look for historical evidence too. They collect data from different periods of Vietnamese history: 1878-1921 for the French Colonization, 1969-1973 for the South Vietnam State, and 1975-1985 for the early Communist Period; and find that the pattern is persistent through time: The Diet Viet zone is, in general, more developed than the Khmer side.

How can these results be interpreted?  The income differences must be due to the Die Viet heritage of greater state capacity that acted through local community self-organization that made them more co-operative and facilitated the resolution of local collective action problems. To test whether this transmission channel matters, the authors looked for data on social capital. Their main sources were the surveys and census of the South Vietnamese period. What they find corroborates their story: villagers on the Diet Viet side were more prone to participate in community activities, to collect more taxes (that at the time were local responsibility, not provincial), to have greater access to public goods (health, school and law enforcement), to be skeptical of central government in favor of local, and to give more to charity.


All in all, the authors do a thorough job in assessing the robustness of their main story. They control for several of potential alternative stories and/or possible variables that could affect the results and mechanisms.  Any critique of it may sound redundant or unreachable.  Yet, I would point to three different aspects that may be important.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I would stress that although the argument makes sense, the narrative is unclear as to how specifically the Dai Viet, which supposedly was a centralized bureaucratized state, fostered local governance. As the authors mention in the introduction, the literature on social capital is ambivalent on its effects on economic outcomes. As it is, the paper’s contribution is the finding of empirical evidence on the presence of a particular transmission channel (from state to local governance), but without a clear model and/or an analytical narrative, we are left in the dark about how explicitly this mechanism worked its way throughout society.

Second, and pushing the level of pickiness even further, one can always speak of a potential omitted variable bias. I must ask then: what about genes? The authors minimize ethnic fragmentation as a problem because they find the studied area is cataloged as being almost entirely composed of homogeneously ethnic Vietnamese. The problem is that censuses and surveys may under-report true ethnicity, and cannot capture genetic differences at all. By the authors’ own account, we are told the Diet Viet State originated as, and remained for a long time, Chinese. Moreover, as Tran (1993) attests, Chinese ethnicity may conflate the results of the paper in other several ways:

  • the largest Chinese migration occurred between the late 17th century and early 19th century, just at the time that the Dai Viet-Khmer border was being established;
  • The Chinese settled mostly in southern Vietnam, the part that the authors use as study case;
  • Chinese early importance resided precisely in that they helped establish new villages and trade outposts. They (not merely the Diet Viet heritage) helped to build local governance structures.

If ethnicity has been underreported and/or Chinese genetics matter in fostering economic development in any way (as suggested by Ashraf-Galor, 20013a, 2013b) then the interpretation of the paper could dramatically change: the importance of the Dai Viet state would be downplayed in favor of just being more ethnic/genetic Chinese. After all, it is known that there is a correlation between having larger ethnic Chinese minority and larger economic growth (Priebe and Rudulf, 2015).

Third, related to the last point: one would expect that given the importance of the result – the long-term reach of Diet Viet institutions–, its impact would feel more broadly across all the territory, not only in the immediate zones of the frontier which were the last to be incorporated into the state.  Figure 3, for example, shows the level of poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann,2004). It is visible that the area under study (along the last border of the historical Diet Viet) has the lowest share of poverty in the whole country. The immediate area to the left (which coincides with the area that historically belonged to the Khmer Empire) is poorer indeed. But the differences are minor if we compare them to the rest of current Vietnam, which belonged almost entirely to the Diet Viet, and has the largest poorer areas.  The RD design may be identifying a non-observable variable that is concentrated in the southern part (like ethnicity or/and genes) and is not broadly distributed across the rest of Vietnam.


Figure 3: Incidence of Poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann, 2004: 155).

Additional References

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013a. Genetic Diversity and the Origins of Cultural Fragmentation. The American Economic Review: Papers on Proceedings 103, 528–533.

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013b. The “Out of Africa” Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review 103, 1–46.

Epprecht, M., Heinemann, A., 2004. Socioeconomic Atlas of Vietnam: A depiction of the 1999 Population and Housing Census. Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, Bern.

Priebe, J., Rudolf, R., 2015. Does the Chinese Diaspora Speed Up Growth in Host Countries? World Development 76, 249–262.

Trần, K., 1993. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility?

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism

By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford (avner.offer@all-souls.ox.ac.uk)

Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses financial markets to transfer financial entitlement over time. Social democracy came up against the limits of public expenditure in the 1970s. The ‘market turn’ from social democracy to market liberalism was enabled by easy credit in the 1980s. Much of this was absorbed into homeownership, which attracted majorities of households (and voters) in the developed world. Early movers did well, but easy credit eventually drove house prices beyond the reach of younger cohorts. Debt service diminished effective demand, which instigated financial instability. Both social democracy and market liberalism are in crisis.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nuf:esohwp:_149

Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-01-29

Review by: Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa, Bangor University


This paper emerged from Avner Offer’s Tawney Lecture at the Economic History Society’s annual conference, Cambridge, 3 April 2016 (the video of which can be found here).

In this paper Offer discussed two macroeconomic innovations of the 20th century, which he calls “the market turn”. These are the changes in fiscal policy and financialisation that encompassed the shift  from social democracy to market liberalism from the 1970s onwards. Social democracy is understood as a fiscal innovation which resulted in the doubling of public expenditure (from aprox. 25 to 50 per cent of GDP between 1920 and 1980). Its aim was reducing wealth inequality. Market liberalism encompassed a monetary innovation, namely the deregulation of credit which allowed households to increase their indebtedness from around 50 to 150 per cent of personal disposable income, mainly for the purpose of home ownership. According to Offer the end result of market liberalism was increasing wealth inequality. See Offer’s depiction of this process in the graph below.

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration. (Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration.
(Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Offer considers that both social democracy and market liberalism are norms captured by the single concept of a “Just World Theory” (Offer & Söderberg, 2016).The ideals behind social democracy are said to be supported by ideas found in classical economics, while the ideals behind market liberalism are said to have emerged from a redefinition of the origins and nature of economic value found in neoclassical economics. Contrasting the ideas behind social democracy and market liberalism brings about  questions such as:

  • Where does value come from?,
  • Is it from production or is it from personal preferences and demand for the good/service?,
  • What is just and fair?,
  • What do we as individuals deserve as reward?, and
  • Is there really a trade-off between equality and efficiency?

Answering any of these question is not simple and heated debates abound around them. Offer, however, rescues the idea of life-cycle dependency, where the situation of the most vulnerable individuals is alleviated through collective risk pooling rather than financial markets. According to Offer,  life-cycle dependency was the dominant approach to reducing poverty in most developed countries until the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Then collapse of the Bretton Woods accord that followed, led to the liberalization of credit by removing previous constraints. This in turn resulted in the “market turn”.

Avner Offer

Professor Avner Offer (1944). MA, DPhil, FBA. Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford since 2011.

Offer then turns to analyse the events after the collapse of Bretton Woods that led to the increase of household indebtedness while focusing on the UK. The 1970s was a very volatile decade for Britain.  For instance, oil price increases and the secondary banking crises of 1973 resulted in the highest annual increase of the inflation rate on record. Offer argues, while citing John Fforde (Executive Director of the Bank of England at that time), that the Competition and Credit Control Act 1971 was as a leap of faith in the pursuit of greater efficiency in financial markets. This Act was accompanied by a new monetary policy where changes in interest rates (the price of money) by the central bank was to bring about the control of the quantity of money. Perhaps unexpectedly and probably due to a lack of a better understanding of the origins of money, that was not the case. Previously lifted credit restrictions had to be reinstated.

Credit controls were again lifted in the 1980s. This time policy innovations went further by allowing clearing (ie commercial) banks to re-enter the personal mortgage market. The Building Societies Act 1986  allowed building societies to offer personal loans and current accounts as well as opened a pathway for them to become commercial banks (which many did after 1989 and all those societies that converted  either collapsed or were taken over by clearing banks or both). Initially and up to the crash of house prices in September, 1992, personal mortgage credit grew continuously and to levels never seen before in the UK. According to Offer, during this period both political parties supported the idea of homeownership and incentivised it through programs like “Help to Buy”. However, the rise in the demand for housing combined with the stagnation in the supply of dwellings pushed up house prices, making it more difficult for first-time buyers to become homeowners. Additionally, according to Offer, the wave of easy credit of the 1980s brought with it an increase in wealth inequality and an increase in the fragility of the financial system. As debt repayments grew as proportion of income, consumption was driven down, with subsequent effects on production and services. On this Offer opined:

“In the quest for economic security, the best personal strategy is to be rich.” (p. 17)

The paper ends with possible and desirable futures for public policy initiatives to deal with today’s challenges around wealth inequality and mounting personal credit. He argues that personal debt should be reduced through rising inflation,  a policy driven write-off or a combination of both. He also argues to reinstate a regime where credit is rationed. He states that financial institutions should not have the ability to create money and therefore the housing market funding should return to the old model of building societies. He has a clear preference for social democracy over market liberalism and as such argues that austerity should end, since it is having the exact opposite effects to what was intended.

Brief Comment

Offer’s thought provoking ideas comes at a time when several political and economic events are taking place (e.g. Brexit, Trump’s attack on Dodd-Frank, etc.) which, together, could be of the magnitude as “the market turn”. Once again economic historians could help better inform the debate. Citing R. H. Tawney, Offer opened the lecture (rather than the paper) by stating that:

“to be an effective advocate in the present, you need a correct and impartial understanding of the past.”

Offer clearly fulfils the latter, even though some orthodox economists might disagree with his inflationary and credit control proposals. As per usual his idea are a great contribution to the debate around market efficiency in a time when the world seems to be in constant distress. Perhaps we ought to generate more and better research to understand the mechanisms through which market liberalism generated the current levels of wealth inequality and financial instability that Offer describes. More importantly though, is analysing if social democracy can bring inequality down as it did in the past. In my view, however, in a world where productivity seems to be stagnated, real wages are decreasing, and debt keeps growing, it is highly unlikely that the public sector can produce the recipe that will set us in the path of economic prosperity for all.

Additional References

Offer, A., & Söderberg, G. (2016). The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn. Princeton University Press.
(Read an excellent review of this book here)

A New Take on Sovereign Debt and Gunboat Diplomacy

Going multilateral? Financial Markets’ Access and the League of Nations Loans, 1923-8


Juan Flores (The Paul Bairoch Institute of Economic History, University of Geneva) and
Yann Decorzant (Centre Régional d’Etudes des Populations Alpines)

Abstract: Why are international financial institutions important? This article reassesses the role of the loans issued with the support of the League of Nations. These long-term loans constituted the financial basis of the League’s strategy to restore the productive basis of countries in central and eastern Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. In this article, it is argued that the League’s loans accomplished the task for which they were conceived because they allowed countries in financial distress to access capital markets. The League adopted an innovative system of funds management and monitoring that ensured the compliance of borrowing countries with its programmes. Empirical evidence is provided to show that financial markets had a positive view of the League’s role as an external, multilateral agent, solving the credibility problem of borrowing countries and allowing them to engage in economic and institutional reforms. This success was achieved despite the League’s own lack of lending resources. It is also demonstrated that this multilateral solution performed better than the bilateral arrangements adopted by other governments in eastern Europe because of its lower borrowing and transaction costs.

Source: The Economic History Review (2016), 69:2, pp. 653–678

Review by Vincent Bignon (Banque de France, France)

Flores and Decorzant’s paper deals with the achievements of the League of Nations in helping some central and Eastern European sovereign states to secure market access during in the Interwar years. Its success is assessed by measuring the financial performance of the loans of those countries and is compared with the performance of the loans issued by a control group made of countries of the same region that did not received the League’s support. The comparison of the yield at issue and fees paid to issuing banks allows the authors to conclude that the League of Nations did a very good job in helping those countries, hence the suggestion in the title to go multilateral.

The authors argue that the loans sponsored by the League of Nation – League’s loan thereafter – solved a commitment issue for borrowing governments, which consisted in the non-credibility when trying to signal their willingness to repay. The authors mention that the League brought financial expertise related to the planning of the loan issuance and in the negotiations of the clauses of contracts, suggesting that those countries lacked the human capital in their Treasuries and central banks. They also describe that the League support went with a monitoring of the stabilization program by a special League envoy.


Empirical results show that League loans led to a reduction of countries’ risk premium, thus allowing relaxing the borrowing constraint, and sometimes reduced quantity rationing for countries that were unable to issue directly through prestigious private bankers. Yet the interests rates of League loans were much higher than those of comparable US bond of the same rating, suggesting that the League did not create a free lunch.

Besides those important points, the paper is important by dealing with a major post war macro financial management issue: the organization of sovereign loans issuance to failed states since their technical administrative apparatus were too impoverished by the war to be able to provide basic peacetime functions such as a stable exchange rate, a fiscal policy with able tax collection. Comparison is made of the League’s loans with those of the IMF, but the situation also echoes the unilateral post WW 2 US Marshall plan. The paper does not study whether the League succeeded in channeling some other private funds to those countries on top of the proceeds of the League loans and does not study how the funds were used to stabilize the situation.


The paper belongs to the recent economic history tradition that aims at deciphering the explanations for sovereign debt repayment away from the gunboat diplomacy explanation, to which Juan Flores had previously contributed together with Marc Flandreau. It is also inspired by the issue of institutional fixes used to signal and enforce credible commitment, suggesting that multilateral foreign fixes solved this problem. This detailed study of financial conditions of League loans adds stimulating knowledge to our knowledge of post WW1 stabilization plans, adding on Sargent (1984) and Santaella (1993). It’s also a very nice complement to the couple of papers on multilateral lending to sovereign states by Tunker and Esteves (2016a, 2016b) that deal with 19th century style multilateralism, when the main European powers guaranteed loans to help a few states secured market access, but without any founding of an international organization.

But the main contribution of the paper, somewhat clouded by the comparison with the IMF, is to lead to a questioning of the functions fulfilled by the League of Nations in the Interwar political system. This bigger issue surfaced at two critical moments. First in the choice of the control group that focus on the sole Central and Eastern European countries, but does not include Germany and France despite that they both received external funding to stabilize their financial situation at the exact moment of the League’s loans. This brings a second issue, one of self-selection of countries into the League’s loans program. Indeed, Germany and France chose to not participate to the League’s scheme despite the fact that they both needed a similar type of funding to stabilize their macro situation. The fact that they did not apply for financial assistance means either that they have the qualified staff and the state apparatus to signal their commitment to repay, or that the League’s loan came with too harsh a monitoring and external constraint on financial policy. It is as if the conditions attached with League’ loans self-selected the good-enough failed states (new states created out of the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) but discouraged more powerful states to apply to the League’ assistance.


Now if one reminds that the promise of the League of Nations was the preservation of peace, the success of the League loans issuance was meager compared to the failure in preserving Europe from a second major war. This of course echoes the previous research of Juan Flores with Marc Flandreau on the role of financial market microstructure in keeping the world in peace during the 19th century. By comparison, the League of Nations failed. Yet a successful League, which would have emulated Rothschild’s 19th century role in peace-keeping would have designed a scheme in which all states in need -France and Germany included – would have borrowed through it.

This leads to wonder the function assigned by their political brokers to the program of financial assistance of the League. As the IMF, the League was only able to design a scheme attractive to the sole countries that had no allies ready or strong-enough to help them secure market access. Also why did the UK and the US chose to channel funds through the League rather than directly? Clearly they needed the League as a delegated agent. Does that means that the League was another form of money doctors or that it acts as a coalition of powerful countries made of those too weak to lend and those rich but without enforcement power? This interpretation is consistent with the authors’ view “the League (…) provided arbitration functions in case of disputes.”

In sum the paper opens new connections with the political science literature on important historical issues dealing with the design of international organization able to provide public goods such as peace and not just helping the (strategic) failed states.


Esteves, R. and Tuner, C. (2016a) “Feeling the blues. Moral hazard and debt dilution in eurobonds before 1914”, Journal of International Money and Finance 65, pp. 46-68.

Esteves, R. and Tuner, C. (2016b) “Eurobonds past and present: A comparative review on debt mutualization in Europe”, Review of Law & Economics (forthcoming).

Flandreau, M. and Flores, J. (2012) “The peaceful conspiracy: Bond markets and international relations during the Pax Britannica”, International Organization, 66, pp. 211-41.

Santaella, J. A (1993) ‘Stabilization programs and external enforcement: experience from the 1920s’, Staff Papers—International Monetary Fund (J. IMF Econ Rev), 40, pp. 584–621

Sargent, T. J., (1983) ‘The ends of four big inflations’, in R. E. Hall, ed., Inflation: Causes and Effects (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, pp. 41–97

Where is the growth?

Mismeasuring Long Run Growth: The Bias from Spliced National Accounts

by Leandro Prados de la Escosura (Carlos III)

Abstract: Comparisons of economic performance over space and time largely depend on how statistical evidence from national accounts and historical estimates are spliced. To allow for changes in relative prices, GDP benchmark years in national accounts are periodically replaced with new and more recent ones. Thus, a homogeneous long-run GDP series requires linking different temporal segments of national accounts. The choice of the splicing procedure may result in substantial differences in GDP levels and growth, particularly as an economy undergoes deep structural transformation. An inadequate splicing may result in a serious bias in the measurement of GDP levels and growth rates.

Alternative splicing solutions are discussed in this paper for the particular case of Spain, a fast growing country in the second half of the twentieth century. It is concluded that the usual linking procedure, retropolation, has serious flows as it tends to bias GDP levels upwards and, consequently, to underestimate growth rates, especially for developing countries experiencing structural change. An alternative interpolation procedure is proposed.

Source: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/cgewacage/202.htm

Distributed in NEP-HIS on 2015 – 01 – 09

Reviewed by Cristián Ducoing

Dealing with National Accounts (hereafter NA) is a hard; dealing with NA in the long run is even harder…..

Broadly speaking, a quick and ready comparison of economic performance for a period of sixty years or more, would typically source its data from the Maddison project. However and as with any other human endevour, this data is not free from error. Potential and actual errors in measuring economic growth is highly relevant economic history research, particularly if we want to improve its public policy impact. See for instance the (brief) discussion in Xavier Marquez’s blog around how the choice of measure can significantly under or overstate importance of Lee Kuan Yew as ruler of Singapore.

The paper by Leandro Prados de la Escosura, therefore, contributes to a growing debate around establishing which is the “best” GDP measure to ascertain economic performance in the long run (i.e. 60 or more years). For some time now Prados de la Escosura has been searching for new ways to measure economic development in the long run. This body of work is now made out of over 60 articles in peer reviewed journals, book chapters and academic books. In this paper, the latest addition to assessing welfare levels in the long run, Prados de la Escosura discusses the problems in using alternative benchmarks and issues of spliced NA in a country with a notorious structural change, Spain. The main hypothesis developed in this article is to ascertain differences that could appear in the long run NA according to the method used to splice NA benchmarks. So, the BIG question is retropolation or interpolation?

Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Source: www.aehe.net

Leandro Prados de la Escosura. Source: http://www.aehe.net

Retropolation: As Prados de la Escosura says, involves a method that is …, widely used by national accountants (and implicitly accepted in international comparisons). [T]he backward projection, or retropolation, approach, accepts the reference level provided by the most recent benchmark estimate…. In other words, the researcher accepts the current benchmark and splits it with the past series (using the variation rates of the past estimations). What is the issue here? Selecting the most recent benchmark results in a higher GDP estimate because, by its nature, this benchmark encompasses a greater number of economic activities. For instance, the ranking of relative income for the UK and France changes significantly when including estimates of prostitution and narcotrafic. This “weird” example shows how with a higher current level and using past variation rates, long-run estimates of GDP will be artificially improved in value. This approach thus can lead us to find historical anomalies such as a richer Spain overtaking France in the XIXth century (See Prados de la Escosura figure 3 below).

An alternative to the backward projection linkage is the interpolation procedure. This method accepts the levels computed directly for each benchmark year as the best possible estimates, on the grounds that they have been obtained with ”complete” information on quantities and prices in the earlier period. This procedure keeps the initial level unaltered, probably being lower than the level estimated by the retropolation approach.

There are two more recent methods to splice NA series derived from the methods described above: the “mixed splicing” proposed by Angel de la Fuente (2014), which uses a parameter to capture the severity of the initial error in the original benchmark. The problem with this solution is the arbitrary value assigned (parameter). Let’s see it graphically and using data for the Maddison project. As it is well known, these figures were recently updated by Jutta Bolt and Jan Luiten van Zanden while the database built thanks to the contributions of several scholars around the world and using a same currency (i.e. the international Geary-Kheamy dollar) to measure NA. Now, in figure 1 shows a plot of GDP per capita of France, UK, USA and Spain using data from the Madison project.

GDP per capita $G-K 1990. France, UK, USA and Spain. 1850 – 2012

The graph suggests that Spain was always poorer than France. But this could change if the chosen method to split NA is the retropolation approach. Probably we need a graph just with France to appreciate the differences. Please see figure 2:

GDP pc Ratio between Spain and France. Bolt&vanZanden (2014) with data from Prados de la Escosura (2003)

GDP pc Ratio between Spain and France. Bolt&vanZanden (2014) with data from Prados de la Escosura (2003)

Figure 2 now suggests an apparent convergence of Spain with France in the period 1957 to 2006. The average growth rate for Spain in this period was almost 3,5% p.a. and in the case of France average growth shrinks to 2,2% p.a. Anecdotal observation as well as documented evidence around Spainish levels of inequality and poverty make this result hard to believe. Prados de la Escosura goes on to help us ascertain this differences in measurement graphically by brining together estimates of retropolation and interpolation approaches in a single graph (see figure 3 below):

Figure 3. Spain’s Comparative Real Per Capita GDP with Alternative Linear Splicing (2011 EKS $) (logs).

Figure 3. Spain’s Comparative Real Per Capita GDP with Alternative Linear Splicing (2011 EKS $) (logs).

In summary, this paper by Prados de la Escosura is a great contribution to the debate on long run economic performance. It poises interesting challenges scholars researching long-term growth and dealing with NA and international comparisons. The benchmarks and split between different sources is always a source of problems to international comparative studies but also to long-term study of the same country. Moving beyond the technical implications discussed by Prados de la Escosura in this paper, economic history research could benefit from a debate to look for alternative measures or proxies for long-run growth, because GDP as the main source of international comparisons is becoming “dated” and ineffective to deal with new research in inequality, genuine savings Genuine Savings, energy consumption, complexity and gaps between development and developed countries to name but a few.


Bolt, J. and J. L. van Zanden (2014). The Maddison Project: collaborative research on historical national accounts. The Economic History Review, 67 (3): 627–651.

Prados de la Escosura, Leandro  (2003) El progreso económico de España (1850-2000). Madrid, Fundación BBVA, , 762 pp.


1) This paper by Prados de la Escosura has already been published in Cliometrica and with the same title

2) Prados de la Escosura’s A new historical database on economic freedom in OECD countries | VOX, CEPR’s Policy Portal.

Was Stalin’s Economic Policy the Root of Nazi Germany’s Defeat?

Was Stalin Necessary for Russia’s Economic Development?

By Anton Cheremukhin (Dallas Fed), Mikhail Golosov (Princeton), Sergei Guriev (SciencesPo), Aleh Tsyvinski (Yale)

Abstract: This paper studies structural transformation of Soviet Russia in 1928-1940 from an agrarian to an industrial economy through the lens of a two-sector neoclassical growth model. We construct a large dataset that covers Soviet Russia during 1928-1940 and Tsarist Russia during 1885-1913. We use a two-sector growth model to compute sectoral TFPs as well as distortions and wedges in the capital, labor and product markets. We find that most wedges substantially increased in 1928-1935 and then fell in 1936-1940 relative to their 1885-1913 levels, while TFP remained generally below pre-WWI trends. Under the neoclassical growth model, projections of these estimated wedges imply that Stalin’s economic policies led to welfare loss of -24 percent of consumption in 1928-1940, but a +16 percent welfare gain after 1941. A representative consumer born at the start of Stalin’s policies in 1928 experiences a reduction in welfare of -1 percent of consumption, a number that does not take into account additional costs of political repression during this time period. We provide three additional counterfactuals: comparison with Japan, comparison with the New Economic Policy (NEP), and assuming alternative post-1940 growth scenarios.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:19425

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-09-28

Review by Emanuele Felice

Until the late 1950s, the era of rapid Soviet growth and of Sputnik, the main question among Western scholars was: When would the Soviet Union catch up with and overtake the U.S.?*

As Cheremukhin et al. correctly emphasize, the subject of this paper – Soviet industrialization in the 1930s – is one of the most important in economic history, and in world history: Soviet Union was the country which played by far the biggest role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, standing almost alone against the land force of the Third Reich and its allies for most of the war and causing 87% of the total Axis’ military deaths (in sharp contrast with World War I, when the Tsarist empire was defeated by a German Reich fighting on two fronts). Emerging from World War II as a superpower, the victorious Soviet Union contributed to shape the next four decades of human history, boasting among its technological achievements the first voyage of a human being to the space. At the same time and during the Stalin regime (1922-1953), the scale of (politically caused) human suffering has had few parallels in world history. Furthermore, as early as the 1930s Stalin’s rule was one of the first totalitarian regimes capable of reaching levels of oppressiveness and manipulation over society unobserved before.

For these reasons Stalin’s Soviet Union should continue to be interrogated by systematic studies. At the core of that regime was industrialization, which aimed to be the material pillar of a new «civilization» (e.g. Kotkin, 1995). Regarding its impact over policy making in the twentieth century, Stalin’s forced industrialization was a source of inspiration for both economists and politicians throughout the world: its planned, top-down, implementation was widely considered to be a successful, though harsh, strategy by some contemporaries.

Joseph Stalin (b 1878 - 1953), Leader of the Soviet Union (1922-1953)

Joseph Stalin (b 1878 – 1953), Leader of the Soviet Union (1922-1953)

And yet, we still have relatively little macro-economic evidence about the Stalinist period. The article Cheremukhin et al. aims to partially fill this gap, by providing consistent figures, some new arguments and insightful counterfactuals. It builds upon a remarkable amount of original research. First, it provides a comprehensive and coherent reconstruction of data on output, consumption, investments, foreign trade and labour force. These figures are presented separately for the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. Data begins in the last decades of Tsarist Russia (1885-1913) and for the the Soviet Union covers the launch of the first five-year plan until the Nazi’s invasion (1928-1940).

Secondly, Cheremukhin et al. propose and elaborate a growth model for the Russian economy in those two periods (i.e. Tsarist Russian and pre-Nazi invention Soviet Union). This is a multi-sector neoclassical model, which is modified to allow for the peculiarity of the economy under scrutiny; namely, due to the institutional frictions and policies that distorted household and firm decisions, three wedges are defined, corresponding to the intratemporal between-sector distortions in capital and labor allocations and to an intertemporal distortion, and price scissors in agricultural prices (between producers and consumers) − which may also be thought of as a fourth wedge − are also introduced for the Stalin’s period.

It may be worth adding that when connecting wedges to policies, the Cheremukhin et al. appear to be adequately aware of the historical context and of the differences between a planned economy and a free-market one: for instance, the response of the Stalinist economy to a drop in agricultural output is likely to be the opposite − because of the price scissors policy which kept producer’s agricultural prices artificially low − to the predictions of a frictionless neoclassical growth model: it will probably lead to a further reallocation of labour from agriculture to industry and services and, therefore, to an additional reduction of agricultural output; such a distortion is here acknowledged and reasonably calibrated.

 “Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”, early Soviet poster promoting industrialization, 1917-1921

“Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”, early Soviet poster promoting industrialization, 1917-1921

Thirdly, the paper by Cheremukhin et al. further elaborates on data and models, by providing a number of counterfactuals. Comparisons are made with the Tsarist economy by extrapolating Tsarist wedges for 1885-1913 to the 1928-1940 years. Also by comparing the performance of both economies (Tsarist and Stalinist), for the years following 1940 under the assumption that World War II never happened.

Another comparison takes place with Japan, a country similar to Russia before World War I in terms of GDP levels and growth rates. Early in the twentieth century Japan suffered similar distortions as Russia but during the interwar period Japan undertook an economic transformation which provided Cheremukhin et al. an alternative scenario to both the Tsarist and the Stalin policies (the Japanese projections are based upon previous reconstructions of the Japanese macro-economic figures, which happen to be available for the same period as for Russia, 1885-1940).

Japanese assault on the entrenched Russian forces, 1904

Japanese assault on the entrenched Russian forces, 1904

And what is probably the most intriguing counterfactual, at least in actual historical terms, is yet one more alternative scenario, constructed by assuming that Lenin’s New Economic Policy or NEP (launched in 1921 and outliving Lenin until 1927) would have continued even after 1927: such a counterfactual requires elaborating a model for the NEP economy as well, but unfortunately the lack of reliable data for the years 1921 to 1927 makes the discussion for this scenario «particularly tentative». Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that two more alternative scenarios are provided for the Stalin economy based on alternative growth rates for the years 1940 to 1960 and again under the assumption that World War II never happened; and that robustness exercises are also performed (with further details provided in the appendix).

Broadly speaking, the results are not favourable to Stalin. According to Cheremukhin et al., Stalin was not necessary for Russian industrialization − neither, it could be consequently argued, to the defeat of Nazism and to the Russia’s rise to a superpower status. Actually, by 1940 the Tsarist economy would probably have reached levels of production and a structure of the economy similar to the Stalinist one, but which far less short-term human costs. This result may not be irreconcilable to Gerschenkron’s (1962) theses about substitute factor − in Russia this was the State, already exerting such a role in late Tzarist times − and the advantages of backwardness: these latter would have permitted to backward Russia, once its industrialization had been set in motion at the end of the nineteenth century, to see its distance to the industrialized West reduced by the time of World War II more than in World War I, in any case – that is, also under the Tzarist regime. It does contrast, however, with other findings from pioneering cliometric articles on the issue, such as the one by Robert Allen published almost twenty years ago, according to which Stalin’s planned system brought about rapid industrialization and even a significant increase of the standard of living (Allen, 1998). Similarly, but from a different perspective, long-run reconstructions of Soviet labour productivity tend to emphasize as a problem the slow-down in the period following post World War II, rather than the performance the 1930s (Harrison, 1998) – both Allen and Harrison are cited in this paper, but not these specific articles.

The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station under construction, South-Eastern Ukraine (the work was begun in 1927 and inaugurated in 1932)

The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station under construction, South-Eastern Ukraine (the work was begun in 1927 and inaugurated in 1932)

Now, at the core of the results by Cheremukhin et al. is the finding that, according to their estimates, total factor productivity of the USSR in the non-agricultural sector did not grow from 1928 to 1940. Maybe it is worth discussing this point in a little more detail. Is such a finding plausible? At a first sight it seems puzzling, given the technological advance of that period especially in the heavy sectors. And yet, at a closer inspection it may turn out to be entirely logical: the growth of output was a consequence of massive inflows of inputs, both machinery (capital) and labour. But all considered these were not used in a more efficient way.

In the model by Cheremukhin et al., capital and labour are computed through a Cobb-Douglas production function, with constant elasticity coefficients for labour and capital (0.7 and 0.3 respectively in the non-agricultural sector; 0.55 and 0.14 in the agricultural one, thus assuming a land’s elasticity of 0.31). The authors make a point that the new labour force entering the non-agricultural sector was largely unskilled and, often, was not even usefully employed. Actually exceeding the real needs of that sector: this politically induced distortion could hardly have increased TFP (although, under different assumptions, it could be alternatively modeled through a decreasing elasticity of labour: but the results in terms of total output would not change). This may also explain the good performance of Soviet Union during World War II, when due to manpower shortage the exceeding labour force finally could be profitably employed. The capital stock is calculated by the authors at 1937 prices, for the years 1928-1940.

Anti-Nazi propaganda poster, 1945

Anti-Nazi propaganda poster, 1945

We do not have enough information in order to judge whether a bias can be caused by the use of constant prices based on a late-year of the series. But this possible bias should lead to an underestimation of capital growth in that period  − given that quantities are probably weighted with relative prices lower in 1937 for the heavy sectors, than in 1928 − which would then produce an overestimation in the TFP growth proposed by the authors: in actual terms, therefore, the growth of TFP may be even lower than what estimated; in more general terms – and although caution is warranted for the lack of detailed figures – their results look realistic in this respect.

The most interesting finding, however, is the one relative to the NEP counterfactual. It is the most interesting because, in genuine historical terms, the Tzarist model was no longer a viable option to Stalin, while NEP’s strategy was. But of course, data for the NEP years are much more precarious and thus this counterfactual can only be a particularly tentative one. Nonetheless, the authors build two scenarios for the NEP policy: a lower-bound one, where a growth rate of TFP in manufacturing after 1928 similar to the average Tsarist 0.5% is tested; and an upper-bound one, with a growth rate of 2% similar to the one experienced by Japan in the same interwar period. In the first scenario the results for the Soviet economy would have been slightly worse, but in the second one much better. Given that the two scenarios correspond to the boundaries of the possibility frontier, we may conclude that probably, under the NEP, the performance of the Soviet economy would have been better than both the one observed under the Stalin and that predictable under the Tzar. This may confirm the view that the 1920s were somehow the “golden age” of Soviet communism, as well as the favourable assessment of Lenin’s and later of the collective Soviet leadership in that decade (although, admittedly, Lenin intended the NEP only as a temporary policy). After all, a more inclusive leadership – as opposed to the harshness of Stalinist autocracy in the 1930s, as well as to Hitler despotic conduct of war since the winter of 1941 – was also the one which helped the Red Army to win World War II.

“The victory of socialism in the USSR is guaranteed”, 1932

“The victory of socialism in the USSR is guaranteed”, 1932


Allen,  Robert C., Capital accumulation, the soft budget constraint and Soviet industrialization, in «European Review of Economic History», 1998, 2(1), pp. 1-24.

Gerschenkron, Alexander, Economic backwardness in historical perspective, Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.

Harrison, Mark, Trends in Soviet Labour Productivity, 1928−85: War, postwar recovery, and slowdown, in «European Review of Economic History», 1998, 2(2), pp. 171-200.

Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1995.

Source of quote:
Gur Ofer (1987) “Soviet Economic Growth: 1928-1985,” Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 1767-1833 (cited in this paper, p. 2).

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

The European Crisis in the Context of the History of Previous Financial Crisis

by Michael Bordo & Harold James

Abstract – There are some striking similarities between the pre 1914 gold standard and EMU today. Both arrangements are based on fixed exchange rates, monetary and fiscal orthodoxy. Each regime gave easy access by financially underdeveloped peripheral countries to capital from the core countries. But the gold standard was a contingent rule—in the case of an emergency like a major war or a serious financial crisis –a country could temporarily devalue its currency. The EMU has no such safety valve. Capital flows in both regimes fuelled asset price booms via the banking system ending in major crises in the peripheral countries. But not having the escape clause has meant that present day Greece and other peripheral European countries have suffered much greater economic harm than did Argentina in the Baring Crisis of 1890.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:bog:spaper:18

Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2015-01-26

Reviewed by: Stephen Billington (Queen’s University of Belfast)


In this paper Bordo and James seek to analyse the impact of the financial crisis of 2007-8 in the context of previous crisis. Specifically by comparing the experience of periphery countries of the Eurozone with those of the “classic” Gold Standard.


In their paper Bordo and James give a synopsis of the similarities which emerged between both monetary regimes. By adhering to a gold parity there was an expansion in the banking system, through large capital inflows, which was underpinned by a strong effective state to allow for greater borrowing. A nation was effective if it held an international diplomatic commitment, which in turn required them to sign into international systems, all the while this played into the hands of radical political parties who played on civilian nationalism[1]; these events combined lead to great inflows of capital into peripheral countries which inevitably led to fiscal instability and a resulting crisis. Similar dilemmas occurred within the EMU, but much more intensely.


This brings me to the main point that the authors emphasize, that of the contingency rule of the classic gold standard. The latter allowed member countries a “safety valve for fiscal policy”. Essentially this was an escape clause that permitted a country to temporarily devalue its currency in an emergency, such as the outbreak of war or a financial crisis, but would return to normalcy soon after, that is, they would return to previous levels. Bordo and James’ argument is that this lack of a contingency within the EMU allowed for a more severe financial crisis to afflict the periphery countries (Greece, Ireland and Portugal) than had affected gold standard peripheries (Argentina, Italy and Australia) as modern day EMU countries did (and do) not have to option to devalue their currency.


Bordo and James point out that crisis during the gold standard were very sharp, but did not last as long as the 2007-8 crisis. This because the exclusion clause during the gold standard enabled a “breathing space” and as a result most countries were back to growth within a few short years. The EMU story is quite different, say Bordo and James. Mundell (1961) argued that a successful monetary union requires the existence of a well-functioning mechanism for adjustment, what we see in the EMU are a case of worse dilemmas due primarily to this absence of an escape clause.

“Gold outflows, and, with money and credit growth tied to gold, lower money and credit growth. The lower money and credit growth would cause prices and wages to fall (or would lead to reductions in the growth rates of prices and wages), helping to restore competitiveness, thus eliminating the external deficits”

The above quote provided by Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) highlights how the gold standard allowed a country to adjust to a deficit. This point reinforces how Bordo & James argue that due to the constricting nature of the EMU there is no “safety valve” to allowed EU countries to release the steam from increasing debt levels. With respect to the Argentine Baring Crisis of 1890, while the crisis was very sharp in terms of real GDP, pre-crisis levels of GDP were again reached by 1893 – clearly a contrast with the Euro as some countries are still in recession with very little progress having been made as suggested by the following headline: “Greece’s current GDP is stuck in ancient Greece” – Business Insider (2013).

The following graph highlights the issue that in Europe most countries are still lagging behind the pre-crisis levels of GDP.


Bordo and James clearly support this argument. Delles and Tavlas (2013) also argue that the adjustment mechanism of core and periphery countries limited the size and persistence of external deficits. They put forward that the durability of the gold standard relied on this mechanism. This is reinforced by Bloomfield (1959) who states it “facilitated adjustments to balance of payments disequilibrium”.

Vinals (1996) further supports the authors’ sentiments by arguing that the Treaty of Maastricht restricts an individual member’s room to manoeuvre as the Treaty requires sound fiscal policies, with debt limited to 60% of GDP and annual deficits no greater than 3% of GDP – meaning a member cannot smooth over these imbalances through spending or taxation.

Gibson, Palivos and Tavlas (2014) state “a major cost of monetary unions is the reduced flexibility to adjust to asymmetric shocks”. They argue that internal devaluations must occur to adjust to fiscal imbalances, but go on to argue that these are much harder to implement than in theory, again supported by Vinals (1996).


Bordo and James focus primarily on three EU periphery countries which are doing badly, namely Greece, Ireland and Portugal. However they neglect the remaining countries within the EU which can also be classed as a periphery. According the Wallerstein (1974) the periphery can be seen as the less developed countries, these could include further countries such as those from eastern Europe[2]. By looking at a more expansive view of peripheral countries we can see that these other peripherals had quick recoveries with sharp decreases in GDP growth, as in the case of the Gold standard countries, but swiftly recovered to high levels of growth again while the main peripheral countries the authors analyse do lag behind.

Untitled2See note 3

Bordo and James do provide a strong insight into the relationship between an adjustment mechanism to combating fiscal imbalances as a means of explaining the poor recovery of certain peripheral countries (i.e. Greece, Ireland, Portugal) and highlight the implications of this in the future of the EMU. If the EMU cannot find a contingency rule as the gold standard then recessions may leave them as vulnerable in the future as they are now.


1) This process can be thought of as a trilemma, Obstfeld, Taylor and Shambaugh (2004) give a better explanation. In the EU the problem was intensified as governments could back higher levels of debt, and there was no provision for European banking supervision, the commitment to EU integration let markets believe that there were no limits to debt levels. This led to inflows in periphery countries where banks could become too big to be rescued.

2) Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and even Cyprus can be included based on low GDP per capita which is equivalent to Greece.

3) Data taken from Eurostat comparing real GDP growth levels of lesser developed countries within the Eurozone who all use the euro and would be locked into the same system of no adjustment.


Bloomfield, A. (1959) Monetary Policy under the International Gold Standard. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Business Insider (2013). Every Country in Europe Should be Glad it’s Not Greece. http://www.businessinsider.com/european-gdp-since-pre-crisis-chart-2013-8?IR=T [Accessed 19/03/2015].

Eurostat, Real GDP Growth Rates http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/graph.do?tab=graph&plugin=1&pcode=tec00115&language=en&toolbox=data [Accessed 21/03/2015].

Dellas, Harris; Tavlas, George S. (2013). The Gold Standard, The Euro, and The Origins of the Greek Sovereign Debt Crisis. Cato Journal 33(3): 491-520.

Gibson, Heather D; Palivos, Theodore; Tavlas, George S. (2014). The Crisis in the Euro Area: An Analytic Overview.Journal of Macroeconomics 39: 233-239.

Mundell, Robert A. (1961). A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas. The American Economic Review 51(4): 657-665.

Obstfeld, Maurice. Taylor, Alan. Shambaugh, Jay C. (2004). The Trilemma in History: Trade-Offs among Exchange Rates, Monetary Policies and Capital Mobility. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER working paper 10396).

Vinals, Jose. (1996). European Monetary Integration: A Narrow or Wide EMU?. European Economic Review 40(3-5): 1103-1109.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974). The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.

On #Trade, #Globalization, #Development and Steamships

The Wind of Change: Maritime Technology, Trade and Economic Development


Luigi Pascali (L.Pascali@warwick.ac.uk) University of Warwick (UK) and Pompeu Fabra University (Spain)


The 1870-1913 period marked the birth of the …first era of trade globalization. How did this tremendous increase in trade affect economic development? This work isolates a causality channel by exploiting the fact that the steamship produced an asymmetric change in trade distances among countries. Before the invention of the steamship, trade routes depended on wind patterns. The introduction of the steamship in the shipping industry reduced shipping costs and time in a disproportionate manner across countries and trade routes. Using this source of variation and a completely novel set of data on shipping times, trade, and development that spans the great majority of the world between 1850 and 1900, I …find that 1) the adoption of the steamship was the major reason for the …first wave of trade globalization, 2) only a small number of countries that were characterized by more inclusive institutions bene…fited from globalization, and 3) globalization exerted a negative effect on both urbanization rates and economic development in most other countries.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/wrkwarwec/1049.htm

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay

The 1870-1913 period saw the first significant wave of trade globalization, which introduced important economic and social changes throughout the world. Despite an abundant literature on the causes of globalization at the time, there are significant methodological issues with these studies. Even more surprisingly, very little has been said about the impact of globalization in this era on the economies of countries around the world. In particular, an essential question to ask seems to be whether the increase in trade witnessed at the time was conducive to greater economic development worldwide.  In a highly ambitious move, Luigi Pascali’s paper (distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-07-13) tackles both issues at the same time, and in so doing contributes significantly to the larger debate on the causes and consequences of trade globalization.

The main challenge in answering these two questions is to deal in each case with an endogeneity problem. Start with the causes of the trade boom. In their attempts to determine whether the rise in international trade could be due to transportation costs, authors have often used freight rates as a proxy for these costs. The problem with this approach is that freight rates are the actual price of transportation. They may be affected by factors which are themselves related to the state of trade (such as demand for goods or economic activity). So causation may not actually run from freight rates to trade – but from other factors related to trade to freight rates.

A similar issue arises when looking at the causal relationship (if any) from trade to economic development. As economic activity may itself have a positive impact on trade – and not just the other way around – a researcher dealing with this question may find a positive correlation between the two but will eventually be faced with a potential endogeneity problem.

Pascali found a creative solution to these difficulties. He did so by making use of the fact that the steamship introduced asymmetric changes (ie. exogenous variation) in trade distances between countries.  Before the steamship, shipping times by sail were mainly determined by wind patterns. The steamship therefore introduced greater changes in shipping times between some countries than between others. Such changes were purely independent of other factors affecting trade, and only linked to such things as the direction of wind and water currents. It thus became possible for the author to examine the effect of a large change in shipping time on trade, independent of other factors linked to trade such as economic activity or market structure.

Clipper ship from the 1850s.

Clipper ship from the 1850s.

To compute such a variable, Pascali built an enormous dataset on sailing times (using such variables as velocity and direction of sea-surface winds) and calculated the likely effect of the adoption of the steamship on shipping times for 129 countries between 1850 and 1900. He also expanded available datasets to include more than 5,000 entries on imports and exports and data on urbanization for more than 5,000 different cities.

What he found was that the introduction of the steamship had a much larger (positive) impact on trade than was previously thought.

Pascali also found that he could use the steamship variable to search for causal links running from trade to greater income levels and development. As mentioned above he had isolated changes in shipping times including the influence of countries’ economic activity. But these changes were strongly related to trade itself. They were then used as instrumental variable in a two-stage least squares (2SLS). In other words, this variable effectively dealt with the endogeneity problem in the analysis of the effects of trade on development.

His results were somewhat surprising. Using this variable as an instrument, the regression of development (urbanization, population density and per-capita GDP) on trade yielded mostly significant but negative coefficients on the explanatory variable. It therefore appears that variation in the intensity of trade between two locations does not have a large impact on development – and may even have a negative one.

Even more interestingly, his findings suggest that whether an increase in trade has a positive impact on development depends on a country’s institutions:  only a few countries having a better established rule of law (as measured by “constraints on the executive” – taken from Acemoglu and Johnson (2005)) benefited from an increase in international trade in terms of development. This finding can be related to relatively recent literature (such as Krugman (1991) or Crafts and Venables (2007)) according to which a reduction in trade costs is only beneficial to a certain set of countries (in particular, those specializing in manufacturing).

A steamship from the 1900s.

A steamship from the 1900s.

Pascali’s paper thus contributes to questioning the positive effects of lowering trade barriers, which are too often taken for granted. He carefully suggests that trade may have a differential impact depending on countries’ institutions. Perhaps some elaboration and discussion on how exactly these relationships play out would have been welcome.  Nevertheless the author’s questions, creative methodology and findings all make for a fascinating read.

Additional References

Acemoglu, D. and S. Johnson (2005). “Unbundling institutions”. Journal of Political Economy 113(5): 949–995.

Crafts, N. and A. Venables (2007). Globalization in Historical Perspective. University of Chicago Press.

Krugman, P. (1991). “Increasing returns and economic geography”. Journal of Political Economy 99: 483-499.