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Essays in Labor Economics and International Trade


This dissertation employs tools from Labor Economics and International Trade to study how workers and labor markets adjust to economic shocks arising from trade liberalization and technological change. It contributes to the existing literature by studying several economic mechanisms that determine the magnitudes of these adjustments.

The first chapter of this dissertation analyzes the roles that skill transferability and the local industry mix have on the adjustment costs of workers affected by negative trade shocks. Using rich administrative data from Germany, we construct novel measures of economic distance between sectors based on the notion of skill transferability. We combine these distance measures with sectoral employment shares in German regions to construct an index of labor market flexibility. This index captures the degree to which workers from a particular industry will be able to reallocate into other jobs. We then study the role of labor market flexibility on the effect of import shocks on the earnings and the employment outcomes of German manufacturing workers. Among workers living in inflexible labor markets, the difference between a worker at the 75th percentile of industry import exposure and one at the 25th percentile of exposure amounts to an earnings loss of roughly 11% of initial annual income (over a 10 year period). The earning losses of workers living in flexible regions are negligible. These findings are robust to controlling for a wide array of region level characteristics, including region size and overall employment growth. Our findings indicate that the industry composition of local labor markets plays an important role on the adjustment processes of workers.

In the second chapter, we develop and apply a framework to quantify the effect of trade on aggregate welfare as well as the distribution of this aggregate effect across different groups of workers. The framework combines a multi-sector gravity model of trade with a Roy-type model of the allocation of workers across sectors. By opening to trade, a country gains in the aggregate by specializing according to its comparative advantage, but the distribution of these gains is unequal as labor demand increases (decreases) for groups of workers specialized in export-oriented (import-oriented) sectors. The model generalizes the specific-factors intuition to a setting with labor reallocation, while maintaining analytical tractability for any number of groups and countries. Our new notion of "inequality-adjusted" welfare effect of trade captures the full cross-group distribution of welfare changes in one measure, as the counterfactual scenario is evaluated by a risk-averse agent behind the veil of ignorance regarding the group to which she belongs. The quantitative application uses trade and labor allocation data across regions in Germany to compute the aggregate and distributional effects of a shock to trade costs or foreign technology levels. For the extreme case in which the country moves back to autarky we find that inequality-adjusted gains from trade are larger than the aggregate gains for both countries, as between-group inequality falls with trade relative to autarky, but the opposite happens for the shock in which China expands in the world economy.

In the third chapter, we use detailed production data from a large Latin American garment manufacturer to study the process of technology adoption and resulting productivity changes within a firm. We find that the adoption of modern manufacturing techniques increases productivity through two channels, a direct effect and a spillover effect across adjacent production units. By exploiting the gradual introduction of new manufacturing techniques across independent production units, we estimate a direct effect on productivity of roughly 30%. We also estimate large spillovers to neighboring untreated units which amount to a 25% increase in productivity. Both of these effects accumulate slowly over time. The timing and the magnitudes of the estimated spillover effects corroborate qualitative evidence consistent with knowledge diffusion, learning and imitation.

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