Spinning the web: Codifiability, Information Frictions and Trade
with Claudia Steinwender (MIT Sloan)
previously circulated as "Drivers of Fragmented Production Chains: Evidence from the 19th century"
This paper uncovers a novel mechanism through which information frictions matter for trade in differentiated goods; the product specification mechanism. We estimate the effect of a reduction in communication time on imports of three product categories in 19th century cotton textile trade; yarn, plain cloth, and finished cloth. In order to identify causal effects, we use exogenous variation in the ruggedness of the submarine seafloor to predict in which year countries get connected to the global telegraph network. The telegraph dramatically reduced the time it took to exchange information expressed in words, but did not affect the exchange of physical objects such as product samples. Using evidence from cotton traders' communication, we show that the examined three products differed in their codifiability, that is, in the extent to which merchants specified product attributes in words. Empirically, we find that communication time reductions had the largest effect on imports of the most codifiable product; yarn, and the smallest effect on the non-codifiable product, finished cotton cloth. Our results suggest that the effect of ICT on trade and fragmentation of production depends on the technology-specific codifiability of product specifications.
This paper uses a natural experiment to estimate the causal effect of temporary trade protection on long-term economic development. I find that regions in the French Empire which became better protected from trade with the British for exogenous reasons during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) increased capacity in mechanized cotton spinning to a larger extent than regions which remained more exposed to trade. In the long-run, regions with exogenously higher spinning capacity had higher activity in mechanized cotton spinning. They also had higher value-added per capita in industry up to the second half of the 19th century, but not later.