Increasing and Diminishing Returns – Africa’s Opportunity to Develop

A drone shot of colorful shipping containers in a shipping terminal

‘This tendency to Diminishing Returns was the cause of Abraham’s parting from Lot, and of most of the migrations of which history tells’ wrote the founder of neo-classical economics, Alfred Marshall, in the first edition of his textbook Principles of Economics (1890). In a footnote he refers to the Bible’s Genesis xiii : 6: ‘And the land was not able to bear them that they might dwell together; for their substance was great so they could not dwell together’. (Marshall 1890: 201)

Marshall’s observation also applies to today’s migration patterns: from countries where most activities are subject to constant or diminishing returns to countries whose key economic activities are subject to increasing returns to scale. Diminishing returns occur when one factor of production is limited by nature, which means that it occurs in agriculture, mining, and fisheries. Normally the best land, the best ore, and the richest fishing grounds are exploited first, and – after a point – the more a country specialises in these activities, the poorer it gets. OECD (2018) shows how this occurs in Chilean copper mining: every ton of copper is produced with a higher cost than the previous ton.

In Alfred Marshall’s theory, the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’ is juxtaposed with ‘The Law of Increasing Returns’, also called economies of scale. Here we find the opposite phenomenon; the larger the volume of production, the cheaper the next unit of production becomes. Traditionally economies of scale were mainly found in manufacturing industry, and increasing returns combined with technological change has for centuries been the main driving force of economic growth. Increasing returns creates imperfect competition, market power and large barriers to entry for challengers – companies or nations – making it difficult for them to enter these industries. In contrast to the rents produced under conditions of increasing returns, raw materials – commodities – on the other hand, are subject to perfect markets, and productivity improvements spread as lowered prices. This is the essence of the theory which explains why former World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin was correct hen he asserted that ‘Except for a few oil-exporting countries, no countries have ever gotten rich without industrialization first’ (Lin 2012 : 350).Read More »

Free Trade Free for All: Market Romanticism Versus Reality


The drama surrounding President Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminum has roiled the Republican Party and wide swathes of the corporate elite. The tariff decision comes on the heels of political bluster about the US being treated “unfairly” by other countries. This accusation of “unfairness” when it comes to US trade deficits is well worn. In a previous era, Japan was the alleged culprit of “unfair” trade practices because of its persistent trade surpluses with the U.S.Read More »

200 Years of Ricardian Trade Theory: How Is This Still A Thing?

maxresdefault.jpegOn Saturday, April 19th 1817, David Ricardo published The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, where he laid out the idea of comparative advantage, which since has become the foundation of neoclassical, ‘mainstream’ international trade theory. 200 years – and lots of theoretical and empirical criticism later – it’s appropriate to ask, how is this still a thing?[1]

This week we saw lots of praise of Ricardo, by the likes of The Economist, CNN, Forbes and Vox. Mainstream economists today tend to see the rejection of free trade implicit in Trump and Brexit as populist nonsense by people who don’t understand the complicated theory of comparative advantage (“Ricardo’s Difficult Idea”, as Paul Krugman once called it in his explanation of why non-economists seem to not understand comparative advantage). However, there are fundamental problems with the assumptions embedded in Ricardo’s theory and there’s little evidence, if any, to back up the Ricardian claim that free trade leads to balanced trade. On this bicentenary, I therefore think it’s timely to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions behind Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, that should have led us to consider alternative trade theories a long time ago. Read More »

Is Competition Always the Answer? A Case Study of Vietnam’s Power Sector


Since 2001, the Vietnamese government has acknowledged the need to increase generation capacity in the electricity sector. With unprecedentedly growing demand of 14% per annum, the electricity industry, however, commonly fails to deliver, especially during peak hours and dry seasons. It is reported that ‘in the whole country there were 3,000 blackout incidents due to system overloading during the first 7 months of 2008’, equivalent to ’14 blackouts a day’ (Nguyen and Dapice, 2010). As a way to mitigate this chronic electricity shortage, the industry’s biggest player, Electricity Vietnam (EVN) has to buy in all that is produced domestically and import from neighbouring countries such as Laos and China. Yet, not only cannot EVN satisfy its primary objective of ensuring a secure electricity supply, but it also suffers significant annual financial losses of hundreds of million dollars. EVN claims that too low average pricing of electricity is the cause of this loss. In addition, audit reports reveal that EVN’s diversification policy had caused further losses.

The inefficiency in infrastructure investment and inadequacy in organizational management have caused anger amongst the public, creating an extremely negative attitude towards the traditional monopoly structure of the electricity sector. Utilising a popular measure, policy makers therefore choose to apply the ‘marketisation’ or liberalization model that is, in theory, similar to the liberalization model that has been implemented in the UK and EU since the 1990s. The main reasons behind the policy are: 1) to assist the government in infrastructure investment; 2) to expose EVN to competitive forces through encouraging private and foreign investment which would force it to improve its financial and operational performance; and 3) to provide affordable and stably-priced electricity. These 3 major objectives are thought to be the outcomes of introducing competition to the traditional monopolistic market structure. This causal link is, however, usually assumed rather than discussed and tested.Read More »