Intra-industry Trade between Similar Economies

Gains from Specialization and Learning

Consider the category of machinery, where the U.S. economy has considerable intra-industry trade. Machinery comes in many varieties, so the United States may be exporting machinery for manufacturing with wood, but importing machinery for photographic processing. The underlying reason why a country like the United States, Japan, or Germany produces one kind of machinery rather than another is usually not related to U.S., German, or Japanese firms and workers having generally higher or lower skills. It is just that, in working on very specific and particular products, firms in certain countries develop unique and different skills.

Specialization in the world economy can be very finely split. In fact, recent years have seen a trend in international trade, which economists call splitting up the value chain. The value chain describes how a good is produced in stages. As indicated in the beginning of the chapter, producing the iPhone involves designing and engineering the phone in the United States, supplying parts from Korea, assembling the parts in China, and advertising and marketing in the United States. Thanks in large part to improvements in communication technology, sharing information, and transportation, it has become easier to split up the value chain. Instead of production in a single large factory, different firms operating in various places and even different countries can divide the value chain. Because firms split up the value chain, international trade often does not involve nations trading whole finished products like automobiles or refrigerators. Instead, it involves shipping more specialized goods like, say, automobile dashboards or the shelving that fits inside refrigerators. Intra-industry trade between similar countries produces economic gains because it allows workers and firms to learn and innovate on particular products—and often to focus on very particular parts of the value chain.

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