Macro diversification through trade

Francesco Caselli, Miklós Koren, Milan Lisicky, Silvana Tenreyro

14 October 2015



An important question at the crossroads of macro-development and international economics is whether and how openness to trade affects macroeconomic volatility. A widely held view in academic and policy discussions, which can be traced back at least to Newbery and Stiglitz (1984), is that openness to international trade leads to higher GDP volatility. The origins of this view are rooted in a large class of theories of international trade predicting that openness to trade increases specialisation.

Because specialisation (or lack of diversification) in production tends to increase a country's exposure to shocks specific to the sectors (or range of products) in which the country specialises, it is generally inferred that trade increases macro volatility. This view seems present in policy circles, where trade openness is often perceived as posing a trade-off between the first and second moments (i.e. trade causes higher productivity at the cost of higher volatility).

New research

In a recent paper (Caselli et at al. 2015), we revisit this common wisdom on two grounds.

  • First, we point out that the existing wisdom is strongly predicated on the assumption that sector-specific shocks (hitting a particular sector) are the dominant source of GDP volatility.

The evidence, however, does not support this assumption. Indeed, country-specific shocks (shocks common to all sectors in a given country) are at least as important as sector-specific shocks in shaping countries' volatility patterns (e.g. Koren and Tenreyro 2007).

Our first contribution is to show that when country-specific shocks are an important source of volatility, openness to international trade can lower GDP volatility. In particular, openness reduces a country's exposure to domestic shocks, and allows it to diversify its sources of demand and supply, leading to potentially lower overall volatility. This is true as long as the volatility of shocks affecting trading partners is not too big, or the covariance of shocks across countries is not too large. In other words, we show that the sign and size of the effect of openness on volatility depends on the variances and covariances of shocks across countries.

  • Second, we question the mechanical assumption that higher sectoral specialisation per se leads to higher volatility.

Indeed, whether GDP volatility increases or decreases with specialisation depends on the intrinsic volatility of the sectors in which the economy specialises in, as well as on the covariance among sectoral shocks and between sectoral and country-wide shocks.

Simulation results

We make these points in the context of a quantitative model of trade and GDP determination.   We use the model in conjunction with sector-level production and bilateral trade data for a diverse group of countries to quantitatively assess how changes in trading costs since the early 1970s have affected GDP volatility. 

We find that the decline in trade costs since the 1970s has caused sizeable reductions in GDP volatility in two-thirds of the countries in our sample, while it led to modest increases in volatility in the other third. The range of changes in volatility varies significantly across countries, with Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium-Luxembourg, and Norway experiencing the largest reductions in volatility, and Greece and Italy experiencing the biggest increases.

The general decline in volatility due to trade is the net result of the two different mechanisms discussed above: sectoral specialisation, and country-wide diversification. The country-wide diversification mechanism contributed to lower volatility in 90% of the countries in our sample, suggesting that there is scope for diversification through trade.

Equally interestingly, and against conventional wisdom, higher sectoral specialisation does not always lead to higher volatility. Austria, Belgium-Luxembourg, India, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden all experienced a decline in volatility due to the trade-induced change in sectoral specialisation. For three-quarters of the countries, however, the sectoral-specialisation channel contributed to increased volatility. As with the overall net effect of trade on volatility, the relative importance of the two mechanisms we highlight varies across countries, though the effect of the specialisation mechanism is on average smaller than the effect of the diversification mechanism.

Concluding remarks

To summarise, our study challenges the standard view that trade increases volatility. It highlights a new mechanism (country diversification) whereby trade can lower volatility. It also shows that the standard mechanism of sectoral specialisation – usually deemed to increase volatility – can in certain circumstances lead to lower volatility. The analysis indicates that diversification of country-specific shocks has generally led to lower volatility during the period we analyse, and has been quantitatively more important than the specialisation mechanism.

As the model and quantitative results illustrate, openness to trade does not always cause an unambiguous effect on volatility. The sign and size of the effect varies across countries. This result might partly explain why direct empirical evidence on the effect of openness on volatility has yielded mixed results. Some studies find that trade decreases volatility (e.g. Cavallo 2008, Haddad et al. 2010, Strotmann et al. 2006, Burgess and Donaldson 2015, Parinduri 2011), while others find that trade increases it (e.g. Rodrik 1998, Easterly et al. 2000, Kose et al. 2003, di Giovanni and Levchenko 2009). The model-based analysis can circumvent the problem of causal identification faced by many empirical studies, allowing for counterfactual exercises that isolate the effect of trade costs on volatility. Moreover, it can cope with highly heterogeneous trade effects across countries.


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Topics:  International trade Macroeconomic policy

Tags:  volatility, openness, specialisation

Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics

Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Central European University and CEPR Research Affiliate

Economic Analyst in the Directorate General for Economics and Financial Affairs (ECFIN), European Commission

Professor of Economics, London School of Economics