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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. Rubinstein, Yona & Helpman, Elhanan & Melitz, Marc, 2008. "Estimating Trade Flows: Trading Partners and Trading Volumes," Scholarly Articles 3228230, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  2. Pierre-Philippe Combes & Miren Lafourcade & Thierry Mayer, 2005. "The Trade Creating Effects of Business and Social Networks: Evidence from France," Université Paris1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (Post-Print and Working Papers) hal-00268768, HAL.
  3. 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.
  4. Robert E. Lucas & Jr., 1967. "Adjustment Costs and the Theory of Supply," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 75, pages 321.
  5. Xavier Gabaix, 1999. "Zipf's Law for Cities: An Explanation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(3), pages 739-767.
  6. James E. Anderson & Eric van Wincoop, 2003. "Gravity with Gravitas: A Solution to the Border Puzzle," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(1), pages 170-192, March.
  7. Anderson, James E, 1979. "A Theoretical Foundation for the Gravity Equation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 69(1), pages 106-16, March.
  8. Elhanan Helpman & Marc J. Melitz & Stephen R. Yeaple, 2004. "Export Versus FDI with Heterogeneous Firms," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(1), pages 300-316, March.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. di Giovanni, Julian & Levchenko, Andrei A., 2013. "Firm entry, trade, and welfare in Zipf's world," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 89(2), pages 283-296.
  12. Thierry Mayer & Soledad Zignago, 2011. "Notes on CEPII’s distances measures: The GeoDist database," Working Papers 2011-25, CEPII research center.
  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.
  14. Elhanan Helpman & Marc Melitz & Yona Rubinstein, 2008. "Estimating Trade Flows: Trading Partners and Trading Volumes," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 123(2), pages 441-487.
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