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New Perspectives on Policy Uncertainty


In recent years, the ubiquitous and intensifying nature of economic policy uncertainty has made it a popular explanation for weak economic performance in developed and developing markets alike. The primary channel for this effect is decreased and delayed investment as firms adopt a ``wait and see'' approach to irreversible investments (Bernanke, 1983; Dixit and Pindyck, 1994). Deep empirical examination of policy uncertainty's impact is rare because of the difficulty associated in measuring its magnitude and changes over time. In this dissertation, I leverage the recent advent of global news aggregators to directly identify and measure policy uncertainty shocks based on ``news chatter'' in the press. Unlike previously used measures of economic uncertainty (e.g., strike days or exchange rate volatility), ``news chatter'' uncertainty indices pick up economic volatility as well as the threat or anticipation of volatility stemming from policy uncertainty, whether or not it comes to fruition. The more holistic character of such measures allows for a more nuanced examination of uncertainty's impact on firm decisions and outcomes. After constructing novel measures of policy uncertainty, I then explore how they translate into economic outcomes that extend beyond the traditional investment channel.

In Chapter 1, I offer new insights into the channels policy uncertainty operates through by constructing a novel and rich dataset of type-specific policy uncertainty indices and leveraging previously unexamined variation in firm-level exposure to external markets to create firm-specific measures of policy uncertainty. Specifically, I exploit variation in firms' exposure to external markets to construct a firm-level measure of policy uncertainty. The approach both highlights a new channel for policy uncertainty and allows for stronger causal identification of the effects of policy uncertainty on economic performance. As part of this effort, I refine prior approaches to measuring policy uncertainty and distinguish between generic, fiscal, monetary, and trade policy uncertainty. I find that firms with greater exposure to external markets tend to experience larger declines in investment, sales, profits, and employment when fiscal and monetary policy uncertainty increase. Unexpectedly, increases in trade policy uncertainty appear to have a positive impact on exports for exposed firms. Both sets of findings can be rationalized in a standard model of firm investment under uncertainty. In particular, I present evidence that exposed firms may perceive increased uncertainty around trade agreement negotiations as a signal that negative outcomes are less likely in the near-term, incentivizing immediate investments.

Historically, exchange rate depreciation makes a country's exports more competitive and cheaper, increasing its exports. Since the end of the Great Recession, many countries have seen this relationship weaken. In Chapter 2, I advance policy uncertainty as a new explanation for such dilutions in the relationship between exchange rates and export performance. Using South Africa as a case study, I find that increased policy uncertainty diminishes the responsiveness of exports to exchange rate fluctuations.

In Chapter 3, I examine a more extreme version of policy uncertainty--regime uncertainty. In 2010, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an indictment against six of Kenya's foremost leaders for crimes against humanity related to 2008 post-election violence. I find strong evidence that firms connected to the accused experienced declines in valuations during ICC shocks, with particularly negative revaluations for firms with highly public links to the accused. The results suggest that the negative effects of regime uncertainty outweighed any positive ``rule of law'' shock that the ICC's intervention might have provided to firms.

Together the studies provide new insights on the connections between policy uncertainty and weak aggregate economic performance. In addition to offering more nuance for policy directives, the results will help discipline future theoretical efforts to more accurately model complex dynamics in modern open economies.

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