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The Gravity Equation in International Trade: An Explanation

  • Thomas Chaney

The gravity equation in international trade is one of the most robust empirical finding in economics: bilateral trade between two countries is proportional to size, measured by GDP, and inversely proportional to the geographic distance between them. While the role of size is well understood, the role of distance remains a mystery. I propose the first explanation for the gravity equation in international trade, based on the emergence of a stable network of input-output linkages between firms. Over time, a firm acquires more suppliers and customers, which tend to be further away. I show that if, as observed empirically, (i) the distribution of firm sizes is well approximated by Zipf's law and (ii) larger firms export over longer distances on average, then aggregate trade is inversely proportional to distance. Data on firm level, sectoral, and aggregate trade support further predictions of the model.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 19285.

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Date of creation: Aug 2013
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:19285
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  1. Yeaple, Stephen & Helpman, Elhanan & Melitz, Marc, 2004. "Export versus FDI with Heterogeneous Firms," Scholarly Articles 3229098, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  2. Daron Acemoglu & Vasco M. Carvalho & Asuman E. Ozdaglar & Alireza Tahbaz-Salehi, 2012. "The Network Origins of Aggregate Fluctuations," Levine's Working Paper Archive 786969000000000359, David K. Levine.
  3. James E. Anderson & Eric van Wincoop, 2000. "Gravity with Gravitas: A Solution to the Border Puzzle," Boston College Working Papers in Economics 485, Boston College Department of Economics.
  4. Anderson, James E, 1979. "A Theoretical Foundation for the Gravity Equation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 69(1), pages 106-16, March.
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  6. Elhanan Helpman & Marc Melitz & Yona Rubinstein, 2008. "Estimating Trade Flows: Trading Partners and Trading Volumes," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 123(2), pages 441-487, 05.
  7. Xavier Gabaix & Rustam Ibragimov, 2007. "Rank-1/2: A Simple Way to Improve the OLS Estimation of Tail Exponents," NBER Technical Working Papers 0342, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Combes, Pierre-Philippe & Lafourcade, Miren & Mayer, Thierry, 2005. "The trade-creating effects of business and social networks: evidence from France," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 66(1), pages 1-29, May.
  9. Robert E. Lucas & Jr., 1967. "Adjustment Costs and the Theory of Supply," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 75, pages 321.
  10. Thierry Mayer & Soledad Zignago, 2011. "Notes on CEPII’s distances measures: The GeoDist database," Working Papers 2011-25, CEPII research center.
  11. Thomas Chaney, 2008. "Distorted Gravity: The Intensive and Extensive Margins of International Trade," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 98(4), pages 1707-21, September.
  12. Xavier Gabaix, 1999. "Zipf'S Law For Cities: An Explanation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 114(3), pages 739-767, August.
  13. Robert C. Feenstra & Robert E. Lipsey & Haiyan Deng & Alyson C. Ma & Hengyong Mo, 2005. "World Trade Flows: 1962-2000," NBER Working Papers 11040, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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