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Comparative Advantage April 8, 2011

Posted by tomflesher in Macro, Teaching.
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So far, we’ve done a lot of discussion of macroeconomics where the economy is closed – that is, we assume all trade takes place in the country, or, in plain terms, there’s no importing and no exporting. Now, we can extend that idea into allowing international trade.

The first question, though, is why would we want to do any international trade at all? Why shouldn’t we – the United States – produce all the goods we need at home instead of sending money outside the country to buy things produced somewhere else?

The first thing to think about is called absolute advantage. In some cases, goods are just cheaper to produce in another country than here. An example might be labor-intensive goods (those are goods produced using more human input than machinery). A lot of clothes purchased in the US are produced in India and Bangladesh, for example, and that makes sense: there are many people, wages are relatively low, and so it’s cheaper to produce goods that can be made by people. On the other hand, the US is more adept at producing capital-intensive goods. An example might be circuitboards, which require a lot of machinery to produce right. It’s easier to substitute people for sewing machines than to substitute them for photoengraving equipment.

However, that ignores some possibilities. If we only took absolute advantage into account, we’d come to the conclusion that a few very smart, very productive nations should do just about everything. Breaking this down to individuals, imagine an economy where there are only two people: a writer and her teenage neighbor. The writer can produce 80 pages of quality material in eight hours and do her dishes in an hour. The teenager can produce 8 pages in eight hours and they aren’t very good, and it takes him two hours to do the dishes. (Not a very productive kid.) If the writer wants a novel, she should do it, and if the writer’s dishes need to be washed, then under the theory of absolute advantage, she should do them, since her absolute cost to do so is lower.

Still, that leaves her with two fewer hours to write, kicking her down to only seven hours and 70 pages. The kid has six pages written and one load of dishes. She’s had to give up 10 pages of production – that’s her opportunity cost, or the best thing she gave up to go mow the lawn. It’d be fair to say that doing the dishes cost her 10 pages of writing. The tally: 76 pages plus two set of dishes (70 + 1 from the writer, and 6 + 1 from the kid).

Suppose instead that the writer negotiates with the kid – she’ll do all his writing, and he’ll do all her dishes. She writes 80 pages. He does two loads of dishes. The total: 80 pages plus two loads of dishes, PLUS the kid has five hours free to put together another five pages of material. We have 85 pages and two loads of dishes. That’s an extra 9 pages. Everyone’s better off.

This is called comparative advantage. The kid isn’t faster than the writer at anything, but his opportunity cost to do a load of dishes – two hours of time – could only produce two pages of writing. The writer’s opportunity cost for a load of dishes is 10 pages. So, since his opportunity cost is lower, the teenager’s comparative advantage is in doing dishes. On the other hand, the opportunity cost to the writer of writing 10 pages is one load of dishes. The opportunity cost to the teenager of writing 10 pages is five loads of dishes. The writer’s opportunity cost is lower, so her comparative advantage is in writing.

You can extend that same idea to two different countries. In some, there are lower opportunity costs to produce goods. It’s correct in a quick and dirty way to say that the opportunity cost of producing labor-intensive goods in the US is higher than in India, and vice versa for capital-intensive goods. Basically, the theory of comparative advantage tells us that even if we have the capability to produce something good, we should allow another country to produce it and then import it if we can produce something better.


Purchasing Power Parity and Real Exchange Rates March 13, 2011

Posted by tomflesher in Macro, Teaching.
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In an earlier post, I talked about purchasing power through the lens of Beerflation. (Again, hat tip to James at the Supine Bovine.) There, purchasing power was used to compare the relative values of the minimum wage in the past to the minimum wage now. Another way we can use purchasing power is to compare whether current prices in one country are the same as prices in the local currency of another country.

That requires some understanding of foreign exchange rates. The convention is to list the exchange rate as a fraction with the foreign country’s value in the numerator and the local currency in the denominator. For example, as of today, one dollar would buy about .72 euro, so the exchange rate in the US would be listed as €0.72/$1. One dollar would buy about 81.89 yen, so the exchange rate there is ¥81.89/$1.1 If we wanted to list the exchange rate of yen for euro, we could work it out using the US exchange rate to be ¥81.89/€0.72, or, dividing out, about ¥113.74/€1. Since we’re comparing currency instead of goods, we call this a nominal exchange rate.

If we stop to think about prices, this should mean that$1 worth of some random good that’s of uniform quality worldwide should be the same as €0.72 or ¥81.89 worth of that same good. Think, for example, about white sugar. Currently, Domino Sugar is listed on Amazon.com at $8.99 for a ten-pound bag. If my purchasing power is the same worldwide, then I should be able to get that same ten-pound bag for around (8.99*0.72) = €6.47 or for around (8.99*81.89) = ¥736.19. If I can, then my money is worth the same around the world – prices are all the same after I change my money. This is called purchasing power parity.

If purchasing power parity holds, then the price of a good in US dollars is the same, after conversion, as the price of a good in euro. That means the exchange rate of those currencies should be the same as the ratio of those prices. In symbols, we could define e as the nominal exchange rate, P as the local price, and P* as the foreign price. (This is the convention that Greg Mankiw uses in Brief Principles of Macroeconomics.) Then,

e = \frac{P\star}{P}

A real exchange rate, like all real variables, relates the prices of goods to each other. The classic example of a real price is to compare the price of a good you wish to buy with the number of hours you’d need to work to get it. If I make $22 per hour, and the price of Daron Acemoglu’s Introduction to Modern Economic Growth is $61.38 (currently), then regardless of the inflation rate or where our prices are pegged, the price of the book for me is 2.79 hours of work. In order to avoid having individual prices, I could peg the price not to hourly wages (which differ from person to person) but to some staple good. Given a $1.95 can of black beans, Daron’s book is worth 31.48 cans of beans, and I make around 11.28 cans of beans per hour. If we divide those out, we’ll get 31.48/11.28 = 2.79 hours per copy of Introduction to Modern Economic Growth.

Neat, huh?

So, if a real price relates the price of goods to each other, a real exchange rate relates local prices to each other. In general, this is done using what’s called a basket of goods that’s supposed to represent what a typical consumer buys in a year. Here, for simplicity, we’ll stick with one good.

If purchasing power parity holds, then the ratio of those prices should be 1/1 after we correct for the foreign exchange rate. So, if we define RER as the real exchange rate between two countries, then

RER = e \times P \times \frac{1}{P\star}

Or, in other words, prices are the same after you exchange your money. That is, with purchasing power parity, the real exchange rate is 1. More simply, if purchasing power parity holds, then prices should be the same whether you change your money into a foreign currency or not.

1 I’m rounding all prices to the nearest hundredth for simplicity.