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Firms in International Trade

  • Andrew Bernard
  • J. Bradford Jensen
  • Stephen Redding
  • Peter Schott

Standard models of international trade devote little attention to firms. Yet of the 5.5 million firms operating in the United States in 2000, just 4 percent engaged in exporting, and the top 10 percent of these exporting firms accounted for 96 percent of U.S. exports. Since the mid 1990s, a large number of empirical studies have provided a wealth of information about the important role that firms play in mediating countries’ imports and exports. This research, based on micro datasets that track countries’ production and trade at the firm level, demonstrates that trading firms differ substantially from firms that solely serve the domestic market. Across a wide range of countries and industries, exporters have been shown to be larger, more productive, more skill- and capital-intensive, and to pay higher wages than non-trading firms.2 Furthermore, these differences exist even before exporting begins. The ex ante “superiority” of exporters suggests self-selection: exporters are more productive, not as a result of exporting, but because only the most productive firms are able to overcome the costs of entering export markets. It is precisely this sort of microeconomic heterogeneity that grants firms the ability to influence macroeconomic outcomes. When trade policy barriers fall or transportation costs decline, high-productivity exporting firms survive and grow while lower-productivity non-exporting firms are more likely to fail. This reallocation of economic activity across firms raises aggregate productivity and provides a new source of welfare gains from trade. Confronting the challenges posed by the analysis of micro data has shifted the focus of the international trade field from countries and industries towards firms and products. We highlight these challenges with a detailed analysis of how trading firms differ from non-trading firms in the United States. We show how these differences serve as the foundation of a series of recent heterogeneous-firm models that offer new insights into the causes and consequences of international trade. We then introduce a new set of stylized facts that emerge from analysis of recently available U.S. customs data. These transaction-level trade data track all of the products imported and exported by the U.S. firms to all of its trading partners from 1992 to 2000. They show that the extensive margins of trade – that is, the number of products firms trade as well as the number of countries they trade with – are central to understanding the well-known role of distance in dampening aggregate trade flows. We conclude with suggestions for further theoretical and empirical research.

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Paper provided by Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau in its series Working Papers with number 07-14.

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Length: 30 pages
Date of creation: Apr 2007
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:cen:wpaper:07-14
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  1. Marc J. Melitz, 2003. "The Impact of Trade on Intra-Industry Reallocations and Aggregate Industry Productivity," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 71(6), pages 1695-1725, November.
  2. Andrew Bernard & Stephen Redding & Peter Schott, 2009. "Multi-Product Firms and Trade Liberalization," Working Papers 09-21, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  3. Bernard, Andrew B. & Redding, Stephen J. & Schott, Peter K., 2004. "Comparative Advantage and Heterogenous Firms," CEPR Discussion Papers 4622, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  4. David Hummels & Alexandre Skiba, 2002. "Shipping the Good Apples Out? An Empirical Confirmation of the Alchian-Allen Conjecture," NBER Working Papers 9023, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Jonathan Eaton & Samuel Kortum & Francis Kramarz, 2008. "An Anatomy of International Trade: Evidence from French Firms," NBER Working Papers 14610, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Elhanan Helpman, 1998. "The Structure of Foreign Trade," NBER Working Papers 6752, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Hallak, Juan Carlos, 2006. "Product quality and the direction of trade," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(1), pages 238-265, January.
  8. Sofronis Clerides & Saul Lach & James Tybout, 1996. "Is "learning-by-exporting" important? Micro-dynamic evidence from Colombia, Mexico and Morocco," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 96-30, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  9. Peter Neary & Carsten Eckel, 2006. "Multi-Product Firms and Flexible Manufacturing in the Global Economy," Economics Series Working Papers 292, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.
  10. Andrew B. Bernard & J. Bradford Jensen, 2006. "Firm Structure, Multinationals, and Manufacturing Plant Deaths," Working Paper Series WP06-7, Peterson Institute for International Economics.
  11. Jonathan Eaton & Samuel Kortum, 2002. "Technology, Geography, and Trade," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(5), pages 1741-1779, September.
  12. Andrew B. Bernard & Stephen Redding & Peter.K Schott, 2006. "Multi-product firms and product switching," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 3687, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
  13. Choi, E. Kwan & Harrigan, James, 2003. "Handbook of International Trade," Staff General Research Papers 11375, Iowa State University, Department of Economics.
  14. Pavcnik, Nina, 2002. "Trade Liberalization, Exit, and Productivity Improvement: Evidence from Chilean Plants," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 69(1), pages 245-76, January.
  15. Andrew B. Bernard & Jonathan Eaton & J. Bradford Jensen & Samuel Kortum, 2003. "Plants and Productivity in International Trade," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(4), pages 1268-1290, September.
  16. Marc J. Melitz & Gianmarco I.P. Ottaviano, 2005. "Market Size, Trade, and Productivity," NBER Working Papers 11393, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  17. Helpman, Elhanan, 2006. "Trade, FDI and the Organization of Firms," CEPR Discussion Papers 5589, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  18. Andrew Bernard & J. Bradford Jensen & Peter Schott, 2003. "Survival of the best fit: exposure to low-wage countries and the (uneven) growth of US manufacturing plants," IFS Working Papers W03/12, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  19. Daniel Trefler, 2006. "The long and short of the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 6721, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
  20. Bernard, Andrew B. & Bradford Jensen, J., 1999. "Exceptional exporter performance: cause, effect, or both?," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 47(1), pages 1-25, February.
  21. Van Biesebroeck, Johannes, 2005. "Exporting raises productivity in sub-Saharan African manufacturing firms," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 67(2), pages 373-391, December.
  22. Hillberry, Russell & Hummels, David, 2008. "Trade responses to geographic frictions: A decomposition using micro-data," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 52(3), pages 527-550, April.
  23. Rubinstein, Yona & Helpman, Elhanan & Melitz, Marc, 2008. "Estimating Trade Flows: Trading Partners and Trading Volumes," Scholarly Articles 3228230, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  24. Trefler, Daniel, 1995. "The Case of the Missing Trade and Other Mysteries," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 85(5), pages 1029-46, December.
  25. Sanghamitra Das & Mark J. Roberts & James R. Tybout, 2001. "Market Entry Costs, Producer Heterogeneity, and Export Dynamics," NBER Working Papers 8629, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  26. David Hummels & Peter J. Klenow, 2005. "The Variety and Quality of a Nation's Exports," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(3), pages 704-723, June.
  27. repec:rus:hseeco:122439 is not listed on IDEAS
  28. repec:rus:hseeco:121669 is not listed on IDEAS
  29. Juan Carlos Hallak & Peter K. Schott, 2008. "Estimating Cross-Country Differences in Product Quality," NBER Working Papers 13807, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  30. Peter K. Schott, 2004. "Across-product Versus Within-product Specialization in International Trade," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 119(2), pages 646-677, May.
  31. Roberto Alvarez & Ricardo López, 2005. "Exporting and performance: evidence from Chilean plants," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 38(4), pages 1384-1400, November.
  32. Volker Nocke & Stephen Yeaple, 2006. "Globalization and Endogenous Firm Scope," PIER Working Paper Archive 06-015, Penn Institute for Economic Research, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania.
  33. Roberts, Mark J & Tybout, James R, 1997. "The Decision to Export in Colombia: An Empirical Model of Entry with Sunk Costs," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(4), pages 545-64, September.
  34. Bernard, Andrew B. & Jensen, J. Bradford & Schott, Peter K., 2006. "Trade costs, firms and productivity," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 53(5), pages 917-937, July.
  35. Krugman, Paul, 1980. "Scale Economies, Product Differentiation, and the Pattern of Trade," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 70(5), pages 950-59, December.
  36. Caves, Douglas W & Christensen, Laurits R & Diewert, W Erwin, 1982. "The Economic Theory of Index Numbers and the Measurement of Input, Output, and Productivity," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 50(6), pages 1393-1414, November.
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