Terms-of-Trade Shocks and Economic Performance, 1870-1940: Prebisch and Singer Revisited
Debate over trends in the terms of trade between primary commodities and manufactures, their causes and their impact has dominated the literature for more than a century. Classical economists claimed that the terms of trade of primary commodities should improve since land and natural resources are always in inelastic supply. Following the Great Depression, a new view emerged. What came to be known as the Prebisch-Singer thesis was instead that the terms of trade for primary products had deteriorated up to the 1950s. The subsequent literature has almost exclusively and obsessively asked whether a deterioration has actually taken place over the 130 years following 1870. Nowhere in this literature has the impact of these terms of trade shocks on long run growth been assessed, although it is certainly full of lively speculation and debate. This paper fills part of this empirical gap by constructing a country-specific panel data base 1870-1940, by documenting terms of trade trends by country and region, and, finally, by estimating the impact of the price shocks on long run economic performance. We find the impact to have been asymmetric between center and periphery.
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