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Earnings Inequality in Latin America: A Three-Decade Retrospective  

Manuel Fernández and Gabriela Serrano

Latin American countries have some of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. However, earnings inequality have significantly changed over time, increasing during the 1980s and 1990s, declining sharply in the 2000s, and stagnating or even increasing in some countries since 2015. Macroeconomic instability in the region in the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the introduction of structural reforms like trade, capital, and financial liberalization, affected the patterns of relative demand and relative earnings across skill-demographic groups in the 1990s, increasing inequality. Significant gains in educational attainment, the demographic transition, and rising female labor force participation changed the skill-demographic composition of labor supply, pushing the education and experience premiums downward, but this was not enough to counteract demand-side trends. At the turn of the 21st century, improved external conditions, driven by China’s massive increase in demand for commodities, boosted economies across Latin America, which began to grow rapidly. Growth was accompanied by a positive shift in the relative demand for less-educated workers, stronger labor institutions, rising minimum wages, and declining labor informality, a confluence of factors that reduced earnings inequality. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, particularly after the end of the commodities price boom in 2014, economic growth decelerated, and the pace of inequality decline stagnated. There is extensive literature documenting and trying to explain the causes of recent earnings inequality dynamics in Latin America. This literature is examined in terms of themes, methodological approaches, and key findings. The focus is on earnings inequality and how developments in labor markets have shaped it.


International Reserves, Exchange Rates, and Monetary Policy: From the Trilemma to the Quadrilemma  

Joshua Aizenman

The links of international reserves, exchange rates, and monetary policy can be understood through the lens of a modern incarnation of the “impossible trinity” (aka the “trilemma”), based on Mundell and Fleming’s hypothesis that a country may simultaneously choose any two, but not all, of the following three policy goals: monetary independence, exchange rate stability, and financial integration. The original economic trilemma was framed in the 1960s, during the Bretton Woods regime, as a binary choice of two out of the possible three policy goals. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, emerging markets and developing countries found that deeper financial integration comes with growing exposure to financial instability and the increased risk of “sudden stop” of capital inflows and capital flight crises. These crises have been characterized by exchange rate instability triggered by countries’ balance sheet exposure to external hard currency debt—exposures that have propagated banking instabilities and crises. Such events have frequently morphed into deep internal and external debt crises, ending with bailouts of systemic banks and powerful macro players. The resultant domestic debt overhang led to fiscal dominance and a reduction of the scope of monetary policy. With varying lags, these crises induced economic and political changes, in which a growing share of emerging markets and developing countries converged to “in-between” regimes in the trilemma middle range—that is, managed exchange rate flexibility, controlled financial integration, and limited but viable monetary autonomy. Emerging research has validated a modern version of the trilemma: that is, countries face a continuous trilemma trade-off in which a higher trilemma policy goal is “traded off” with a drop in the weighted average of the other two trilemma policy goals. The concerns associated with exposure to financial instability have been addressed by varying configurations of managing public buffers (international reserves, sovereign wealth funds), as well as growing application of macro-prudential measures aimed at inducing systemic players to internalize the impact of their balance sheet exposure on a country’s financial stability. Consequently, the original trilemma has morphed into a quadrilemma, wherein financial stability has been added to the trilemma’s original policy goals. Size does matter, and there is no way for smaller countries to insulate themselves fully from exposure to global cycles and shocks. Yet successful navigation of the open-economy quadrilemma helps in reducing the transmission of external shock to the domestic economy, as well as the costs of domestic shocks. These observations explain the relative resilience of emerging markets—especially in countries with more mature institutions—as they have been buffered by deeper precautionary management of reserves, and greater fiscal and monetary space. We close the discussion noting that the global financial crisis, and the subsequent Eurozone crisis, have shown that no country is immune from exposure to financial instability and from the modern quadrilemma. However, countries with mature institutions, deeper fiscal capabilities, and more fiscal space may substitute the reliance on costly precautionary buffers with bilateral swap lines coordinated among their central banks. While the benefits of such arrangements are clear, they may hinge on the presence and credibility of their fiscal backstop mechanisms, and on curbing the resultant moral hazard. Time will test this credibility, and the degree to which risk-pooling arrangements can be extended to cover the growing share of emerging markets and developing countries.


Knowledge Spillovers, Trade, and Foreign Direct Investment  

Wolfgang Keller

This article explores knowledge spillovers, positive externalities that augment the information set of an economic agent, and reviews the evidence on such spillovers in the context of international economic transactions. The entry discusses trade channels of knowledge transfer associated with purchases from abroad (imports) and sales to abroad (exports). Another focus is on the foreign direct investment (FDI) channel through purchases from abroad (inward FDI) and sales to abroad (outward FDI). The entry also distinguishes knowledge flows from foreign to domestic agents and from domestic to foreign agents. The entry underlines the importance of empirical methodology and data characteristics that determine the quality of econometric identification. Even though spillovers are by their very nature—as externalities—difficult to identify, over recent decades a number of advances have produced robust evidence that both trade and foreign direct investment lead to sizable knowledge spillovers. These advances have been both conceptual as well as in the areas of empirical methodology and new data.


New Economic Geography  

Ching-mu Chen and Shin-Kun Peng

For research attempting to investigate why economic activities are distributed unevenly across geographic space, new economic geography (NEG) provides a general equilibrium-based and microfounded approach to modeling a spatial economy characterized by a large variety of economic agglomerations. NEG emphasizes how agglomeration (centripetal) and dispersion (centrifugal) forces interact to generate observed spatial configurations and uneven distributions of economic activity. However, numerous economic geographers prefer to refer to the term new economic geographies as vigorous and diversified academic outputs that are inspired by the institutional-cultural turn of economic geography. Accordingly, the term geographical economics has been suggested as an alternative to NEG. Approaches for modeling a spatial economy through the use of a general equilibrium framework have not only rendered existing concepts amenable to empirical scrutiny and policy analysis but also drawn economic geography and location theories from the periphery to the center of mainstream economic theory. Reduced-form empirical studies have attempted to test certain implications of NEG. However, due to NEG’s simplified geographic settings, the developed NEG models cannot be easily applied to observed data. The recent development of quantitative spatial models based on the mechanisms formalized by previous NEG theories has been a breakthrough in building an empirically relevant framework for implementing counterfactual policy exercises. If quantitative spatial models can connect with observed data in an empirically meaningful manner, they can enable the decomposition of key theoretical mechanisms and afford specificity in the evaluation of the general equilibrium effects of policy interventions in particular settings. Several decades since its proposal, NEG has been criticized for its parsimonious assumptions about the economy across space and time. Therefore, existing challenges still require theoretical and quantitative models on new microfoundations pertaining to the interactions between economic agents across geographical space and the relationship between geography and economic development.


The Economics of International Wage Differentials and Migration  

Lant Pritchett and Farah Hani

The key question for the economics of international migration is whether observed real wage differentials across countries for workers with identical intrinsic productivity represent an economic inefficiency sustained by legal barriers to labor mobility between geographies. A simple comparison of the real wages of workers with the same level of formal schooling or performing similar occupations across countries shows massive gaps between rich and poorer countries. These gaps persist after adjusting for observed and unobserved human capital characteristics, suggesting a “place premium”—or space-specific wage differentials that are not due to intrinsic worker productivity but rather are due to a misallocation of labor. If wage gaps are not due to intrinsic worker productivity, then the incentive for workers to move to richer countries is high. The idea of a place premium is corroborated by macroeconomic evidence. National accounts data show large cross-country output per worker differences, driven by the divergence of total factor productivity. The lack of convergence in total factor productivity and corresponding spatial productivity differentials create differences in the marginal product of factors, and hence persistent gaps in the wages of equal productivity workers. These differentials can equalize with factor flows; however their persistence and large magnitude in the case of labor, suggest legal barriers to migration restricting labor flows are in fact constraining significant return on human capital, and leaving billions in unrealized gains to the world’s workers and global economy. A relaxation of these barriers would generate worker welfare gains that dwarf gold-standard poverty reduction programs.


Trade Liberalization and Informal Labor Markets  

Lourenço S. Paz and Jennifer P. Poole

In recent decades, economic reforms and technological advances have profoundly altered the way employers do business—for instance, the nature of employment relationships, the skills firms demand, and the goods and services they produce and export. In many developing economies, these changes took place concurrently with a substantive rise in work outside of the formal economy. According to International Labour Organization estimates, informal employment can be as high as 88% of total employment in India, almost 50% in Brazil, and around 35% of employment in South Africa. Such informal employment is typically associated with lower wages, lower productivity, poorer working conditions, weaker employment protections, and fewer job benefits and amenities, and these informal workers are often poorer and more vulnerable than their counterparts in the formalized economy. Informal jobs are a consequence of labor market policies—like severance payments or social security contributions—that make the noncompliant informal job cheaper for the employer than a compliant formal job. Each model has a different benefit (or lack of punishment) for employing formal workers, and a distinct mechanism through which international trade shocks alter the benefit-cost of these types of jobs, which in turn results in a change in the informality share. The empirical literature concerning international trade and formality largely points to an unambiguous increase in informal employment in the aftermath of increased import competition. Interestingly, increased access to foreign markets, via liberalization of major trading partners, offers strongly positive implications for formal employment opportunities, decreasing informality. Such effects are moderated by the de facto enforcement of labor regulations. Expansions toward the formal economy and away from informal wage employment in the aftermath of increased access to foreign markets are smaller in strictly enforced areas of the country.