On the evolution of comparative advantage: path-dependent versus path-defying changes

25  February 2019    3:00 pm CET

Nicola Cantore, Department of Policy Research and Statistics at UNIDO and Michele Clara, Research and Policy Advice Division at UNIDO

In cooperation with:


wiiw, Rahlgasse 3, 1060 Vienna


Nicola Cantore

The diversification of production and trade is considered almost unanimously a fundamental policy  goal, particularly for developing economies whose export baskets are heavily concentrated on a few products. In what direction trade diversification ought to take place is, however, subject to fierce debate. The Product Space (PS) framework (Hausmann and Klinger, 2007; Hidalgo et al. 2007) is a recent contribution in the economic literature that has proved very influential in policy circles. It argues that the endowment of production capabilities (technologies, production factors, institutions etc.) determines what countries produce today but it also constrains what they can produce in the future as it is uncommon that countries develop a comparative advantage in goods that do not draw from the same pool of capabilities (unrelated products).

Michele Clara

Contributions along such line argue that defying the initial comparative advantage can be a risky policy decision with high probability of failure. The main objective of this contribution is to use a novel methodology to investigate whether the patterns of diversification of a sample of 177 countries over the period 1995-2015 conform or not to the prediction of the PS framework. We find evidence of a high degree of path-dependence but our analysis suggests also that a significant number of new products that entered countries’ export baskets were unrelated to the initial productive specialization (path-defying changes). We shed light on the determinants of these ‘radical’ patterns of diversification and show they are associated with higher economic growth. The results of this study have important policy implications in particular for the design of industrial policies aimed at actively shaping countries’ structural transformation.

Keywords: path-dependence, product space, trade diversification, industrial policy

JEL classification: F1, O1, O3