How confident can we be of CGE-based assessments of Free Trade Agreements?
With the proliferation of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) over the past decade, demand for quantitative analysis of their likely impacts has surged. The main quantitative tool for performing such analysis is Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) modeling. Yet these models have been widely criticized for performing poorly (Kehoe, 2002) and having weak econometric foundations (McKitrick, 1998; Jorgenson, 1984). FTA results have been shown to be particularly sensitive to the trade elasticities, with small trade elasticities generating large terms of trade effects and relatively modest efficiency gains, whereas large trade elasticities lead to the opposite result. Critics are understandably wary of results being determined largely by the authors’ choice of trade elasticities. Where do these trade elasticities come from? CGE modelers typically draw these elasticities from econometric work that uses time series price variation to identify an elasticity of substitution between domestic goods and composite imports (Alaouze, 1977; Alaouze, et al., 1977; Stern et al., 1976; Gallaway, McDaniel and Rivera, 2003). This approach has three problems: the use of point estimates as “truth”, the magnitude of the point estimates, and estimating the relevant elasticity. First, modelers take point estimates drawn from the econometric literature, while ignoring the precision of these estimates. As we will make clear below, the confidence one has in various CGE conclusions depends critically on the size of the confidence interval around parameter estimates. Standard “robustness checks” such as systematically raising or lowering the substitution parameters does not properly address this problem because it ignores information about which parameters we know with some precision and which we do not. A second problem with most existing studies derives from the use of import price series to identify home vs. foreign substitution, for example, tends to systematically understate the true elasticity. Th
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