Thomas J. Holmes


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Thomas Holmes joined the Bank as an economist in 1993. He is currently a research consultant in the Research Department and holds the Curtis L. Carlson Chair in Economics at the University of Minnesota. Before joining the Bank, he taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Tom’s research focuses on industrial organization, urban economics, and international trade. One recent publication in the Journal of Political Economy examines the differential effects of international trade on small and large manufacturing plants.  Another recent publication in Econometrica examines the rapid spread of Wal-Mart stores.

Tom received his Ph.D. in economics from Northwestern in 1985, and a B.S. in economics and B.A. in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981.  In 2011, he was elected a Fellow of the Econometric Society.  He is current president of the Midwest Economics Association and past president of the Urban Economics Association.  He is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Container Imports and the Advantage of Size

Most U.S. imports from Asia arrive in giant 40-foot shipping containers on the decks of massive ocean-going vessels. As such, the containers are powerful symbols of globalization, and the economics of using them has contributed to both the rapid growth of large U.S. retailers and the explosion of Chinese imports. This paper reports on the advantage that large importers have in ensuring that shipping containers are packed to capacity. Proliferation of product varieties and short order cycles have led importers to combine various kinds of products, often from different suppliers, to completely fill containers. Our analysis of detailed data on millions of import containers reveals significant scale economies in shipping. To the extent that such scale economies are important, policies that limit or impede the growth of large firms may be undesirable for society.

Indivisibilities in Distribution

This paper develops and estimates a model of indivisibilities in shipping and economies of scale in consolidation. It uses highly detailed data on imports where it is possible to observe the contents of individual containers. In the model, firms are able to adapt to indivisibility constraints by using consolidation strategies and by making adjustments to shipment size. The firm determines the optimal number of domestic ports to use, taking into account that adding more ports lowers inland freight cost, at the expense of a higher indivisibility cost. The estimated model is able to roughly account for Walmart’s port choice behavior. The model estimates are used to evaluate how mergers or dissolutions of firms or countries, and changes in variety, affect indivisibility costs and inland freight costs.

Quid Pro Quo: Technology Capital Transfers for Market Access in China

By the 1970s, quid pro quo policy, which requires multinational firms to transfer technology in return for market access, had become a common practice in many developing countries. While many countries have subsequently liberalized quid pro quo requirements, China continues to follow the policy. In this paper, we incorporate quid pro quo policy into a multicountry dynamic general equilibrium model, using microevidence from Chinese patents to motivate key assumptions about the terms of the technology transfer deals and macroevidence on China’s inward foreign direct investment (FDI) to estimate key model parameters. We then use the model to quantify the impact of China’s quid pro quo policy and show that it has had a significant impact on global innovation and welfare.

The Costs of Quid Pro Quo

To gain access to its markets, the Chinese government sometimes requires high-technology foreign firms to transfer partial property rights to their technology. Because the Chinese market is large and potentially lucrative, major multinationals typically agree to this quid pro quo policy, often through joint ventures with Chinese firms.
We use a quantitative macroeconomic model to analyze the effects of this policy on firm investment incentives, Chinese technology goals, and overall international technology and investment flows.

Pay with Promises or Pay as You Go? Lessons from the Death Spiral of Detroit?

As part of compensation, municipal employees typically receive promises of future benefits. Motivated by the recent bankruptcy of Detroit, we develop a model of the equilibrium size of a city and use it to analyze how pay-with-promises schemes interact with city growth. The paper examines the circumstances under which a death spiral arises, where cutbacks of city services and increases in taxes lead to an exodus of residents, compounding financial distress. The model is put to work to analyze issues such as the welfare effects of having cities absorb pension risk and how unions affect the likelihood of a death spiral.

Paychecks or Promises? Lessons from the Death Spiral of Detroit

Pay-with-promises compensation plans accumulate liability for future employee benefits, such as retiree health insurance. A simple economic model demonstrates that such plans can exacerbate fiscal crises faced by cities that experience external economic shocks, such as the departure of a major employer. City leaders often raise taxes and/or reduce public services to pay off legacy employee debts, and such steps encourage residents to move out, reducing the tax base and raising fiscal stress. Pay-as-you-go compensation plans are more prudent; they settle liabilities to employees paycheck by paycheck.

New Manufacturing Investment and Unions

Despite recent media stories about both labor unions and the potential revitalization of U.S. manufacturing, most current policy discussions about improving business climate to foster manufacturing neglect the role of unions. This, plus the continued decline in U.S. union membership, might lead one to believe that unions matter little for new investment decisions.

Technology Capital Transfer

It is widely believed that an important factor underlying the rapid growth in China is increased foreign direct investment (FDI) and the transfer of foreign technology capital, which is accumulated know-how from investment in research and development (R&D), brands, and organizations that is not specific to a plant. In this paper, we study two channels through which FDI can contribute to upgrading of the stock of technology capital: knowledge spillovers and appropriation. Knowledge spillovers lead to new ideas that do not directly compete or devalue the foreign affiliate’s stock. Appropriation, on the other hand, implies a redistribution of property rights over patents and trademarks; the gain to domestic companies comes at a loss to the multinational company (MNC). In this paper we build these sources of technology capital transfer into the framework developed by McGrattan and Prescott (2009, 2010) and introduce an endogenously-chosen intensity margin for operating technology capital in order to capture the trade-offs MNCs face when expanding their markets internationally. We first demonstrate that abstracting from technology capital transfers results in predicted bilateral FDI inflows to China that are grossly at odds with the data. We then use the bilateral inflows to parameterize the model with technology capital transfers and compute the global economic impact of Chinese policies that encouraged greater inflows of FDI and technology capital transfers. Microevidence on automobile patents is used to support our parameter choices and main findings.

The Case of the Disappearing Large-Employer Manufacturing Plants: Not Much of a Mystery After All

This paper seeks to contribute to policy discussion over recent declines in U.S. manufacturing through close investigation of employment trends in U.S. manufacturing plants with 1,000 or more workers, “large-employer plants.” These plants are disappearing at a rate much greater than the decline in manufacturing as a whole. To determine what is happening to these plants, the paper links the 1997 and 2007 published Census Bureau tabulations of the locations of manufacturing plants. This makes it possible to distinguish between plants that are no longer large employers because they have downsized to a smaller employment level and plants that have closed outright.

An Alternative Theory of the Plant Size Distribution with and Application to Trade

There is wide variation in the sizes of manufacturing plants, even within the most narrowly defined industry classifications used by statistical agencies. Standard theories attribute all such size differences to productivity differences. This paper develops an alternative theory in which industries are made up of large plants producing standardized goods and small plants making custom or specialty goods. It uses confidential Census data to estimate the parameters of the model, including estimates of plant counts in the standardized and specialty segments by industry. The estimated model fits the data relatively well compared with estimates based on standard approaches. In particular, the predictions of the model for the impacts of a surge in imports from China are consistent with what happened to U.S. manufacturing industries that experienced such a surge over the period 1997–2007. Large-scale standardized plants were decimated, while small-scale specialty plants were relatively less impacted.

Competition and Productivity: A Review of Evidence

Does competition spur productivity? And if so, how does it do so? These have long been regarded as central questions in economics. This essay reviews the literature that makes progress toward answering both questions.

A Theory of Outsourcing and Wage Decline

We develop a theory of outsourcing in which there is market power in one factor market (labor) and no market power in a second factor market (capital). There are two intermediate goods: one labor-intensive and the other capital-intensive. We show there is always outsourcing in the market allocation when a friction limiting outsourcing is not too big. The key factor underlying the result is that labor demand is more elastic, the greater the labor share. Integrated plants pay higher wages than the specialist producers of labor-intensive intermediates. We derive conditions under which there are multiple equilibria that vary in the degree of outsourcing. Across these equilibria, wages are lower the greater the degree of outsourcing. Wages fall when outsourcing increases in response to a decline in the outsourcing friction.

Economies of Density versus Natural Advantage: Crop Choice on the Back Forty

We estimate the factors determining specialization of crop choice at the level of individual fields, distinguishing between the role of natural advantage (soil characteristics) and economies of density (scale economies achieved when farmers plant neighboring fields with the same crop). Using rich geographic data from North Dakota, including new data on crop choice collected by satellite, we estimate the analog of a social interactions econometric model for the planting decisions on neighboring fields. We find that planting decisions on a field are heavily dependent on the soil characteristics of the neighboring fields. Through this relationship, we back out the structural parameters of economies of density. Setting an Ellison-Glaeser dartboard level of specialization as a benchmark, we find that of the actual level of specialization achieved beyond this benchmark, approximately two-thirds can be attributed to natural advantage and one-third to density economies.

Monopoly and the Incentive to Innovate When Adoption Involves Switchover Disruptions

Arrow (1962) argued that since a monopoly restricts output relative to a competitive industry, it would be less willing to pay a fixed cost to adopt a new technology. Arrow’s idea has been challenged and critiques have shown that under different assumptions, increases in competition lead to less innovation. We develop a new theory of why a monopolistic industry innovates less than a competitive industry. The key is that firms often face major problems in integrating new technologies. In some cases, upon adoption of technology, firms must temporarily reduce output. We call such problems switchover disruptions. If firms face switchover disruptions, then a cost of adoption is the forgone rents on the sales of lost or delayed production, and these opportunity costs are larger the higher the price on those lost units. In particular, with greater monopoly power, the greater the forgone rents. This idea has significant consequences since if we add switchover disruptions to standard models, then the critiques of Arrow lose their force: competition again leads to greater adoption. In addition, we show that our model helps explain the accumulating evidence that competition leads to greater adoption (whereas the standard models cannot).

Geographic Spillover of Unionism

Unionism in the United States is contagious; it spills out of coal mines and steel mills into other establishments in the neighborhood, like hospitals and supermarkets. The geographic spillover of unionism is documented here using a newly constructed establishment level data on unionism that is rich in geographic detail. A strong connection is found between unionism of health care establishments today and proximity to unionized coal mines and steel mills from the 1950s.

A Theory of Allocation and Plant Size

In this paper we develop a theory of how factors interact at the plant level. The theory has implications for (1) the micro foundations for capital-skill complementarity, (2) the relationship between factor allocation and plant size, and (3) the effects of trade and growth on the skill premium. The theory is consistent with certain facts about factor allocation and factor price changes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Home Market and the Pattern of Trade: Round Three

Does national market size matter for industrial structure? Round One (Krugman) answered in the affirmative: Home market effects matter. Round Two (Davis) refuted this, arguing that an assumption of convenience—transport costs only for the differentiated goods—conveniently obtained the result. In Round Three we relax another persistent assumption of convenience—two industry types differentiated only by the degree of scale economies—and find that market size reemerges as a relevant force in determining industrial structure.

The Role of Cities: Evidence from the Placement of Sales Offices

What is the force of attraction of cities? Leading explanations include the advantages of a concentrated market and knowledge spillovers. This paper develops a model of firm location decisions in which it is possible to distinguish the importance of the concentrated-market motive from other motives, including knowledge spillovers. A key aspect of the model is that it allows for the firm to choose multiple locations. The theory is applied to study the placement of manufacturing sales offices. The implications of the concentrated-market motive are found to be a salient feature of U.S. Census micro data. The structural parameters of the model are estimated. The concentrated-market motive is found to account for approximately half of the concentration of sales offices in large cities.

Competition at Work: Railroads vs. Monopoly in the U.S. Shipping Industry

This study primarily establishes two things: (1) that monopoly has been pervasive in the U.S. water transportation industry in both the 19th and 20th centuries and has led to prices above competitive levels and the adoption of inefficient technologies and (2) that the competition of railroads has greatly weakened this monopolistic tendency, leading to lower water transport prices and fewer inefficient technologies. The study establishes these points using standard economic theory and extensive historical U.S. data on the behavior of unions and shipping companies. These gains from competition have been ignored by researchers studying the contribution of railroads to U.S. economic growth. Researchers have assumed that if railroads had not been developed, the long-distance transportation industry would have been competitive. This study shows that it would not have been. The quantitative estimates of previous studies thus are likely to have significantly understated the gains from the development of railroads.

Do Mergers Lead to Monopoly in the Long Run: Results from the Dominant Firm Model

Will an industry with no antitrust policy converge to monopoly, competition or somewhere in between? We analyze this question using a dynamic dominant firm model with rational agents, endogenous mergers and constant returns to scale production. We find that perfect competition and monopoly are always steady states of this model and that there may be other steady states with a dominant firm and a fringe co-existing. Mergers are likely only when supply is inelastic or demand is elastic, suggesting that the ability of a dominant firm to raise price through monopolization is limited. Additionally, as the discount rate increases, it becomes harder to monopolize the industry, because the dominant firm cannot commit to not raising prices in the future.

Bar Codes Lead to Frequent Deliveries and Superstores

This paper explores the consequences of new information technologies, such as bar codes and computer-tracking of inventories, for the optimal organization of retail. The first result is that there is a complementarity between the new information technology and frequent deliveries. This is consistent with the recent move in the retail sector toward higher-frequency delivery schedules. The second result is that adoption of the new technology tends to increase store size. This is consistent with recent increases in store size and the success of the superstore model of retail organization.

A Gain From Trade: More Research, Less Obstruction

There is an old wisdom that reductions in tariffs force changes on producers that lead to costless, or nearly so, increases in productivity. We construct a technology-ladder model that captures this wisdom. As in other technology-ladder models, time spent in research helps propel an industry up a technology-ladder. In contrast to the literature, we include another activity that plays a role in determining an industry’s position on the technology-ladder: attempts to obstruct the research program of rivals (through regulations, for example). In this world, reductions in tariffs between countries lead producers to spend more time in research and less in obstruction of rivals.

Step-by-Step Migration to Efficient Agglomerations

Recent literature suggests that historical accidents can trap economies in inefficient equilibria. In a prototype model in the literature, there are two locations, the productive South and the unproductive North. By accident of history, the industry starts in the North. Because of agglomeration economies, the industry may reside in the North forever—an inefficient outcome. This paper modifies the standard model by assuming there is a continuum of locations between the North and the South. Productivity gradually increases as one moves South. There is a unique long-run equilibrium in this economy where all agents locate at the most productive locations.

How Industries Migrate When Agglomeration Economies are Important

The Economics of QWERTY suggests that historical accidents can trap economies in inefficient equilibria. This paper suggests that such accidents do not have the force that proponents claim. The paper presents a mechanism that may unravel a locational advantage caused by an historical accident. In the model, there are agglomeration benefits from concentrating industry in a particular location because it enables a large variety of local suppliers to emerge. Firms differ by the extent to which they purchase from local suppliers. Low-tier firms purchase little; high-tier firms purchase more. When the industry migrates, the lowest-tier products move first.

The Effect of State Policies on the Location of Industry: Evidence from State Borders

This paper provides new evidence that state policies play a role in the location of industry. The paper classifies a state as pro-business or anti-business depending upon whether or not the state has a right-to-work law. The paper finds that, on average, there is a large abrupt increase in manufacturing activity when crossing a state border from an anti-business state into a pro-business state.

Analyzing a Proposal to Ban State Tax Breaks to Businesses

This article asks whether or not the overall welfare of U.S. residents would be greater if U.S. federal law prohibited state governments from offering tax breaks to particular businesses. The answer of a formal model is yes, making such tax breaks illegal could increase a summary measure of total welfare in the economy. According to the model, the policy could increase welfare because it would increase the tax revenue collected from capital agents, and that revenue could finance an increase in spending on public goods. The policy would also spread the tax burden more evenly in the economy and so reduce the deadweight loss of taxation per dollar collected. In addition, the policy would lead to a more efficient pattern of industry locations in the economy.

Localization of Industry and Vertical Disintegration

This paper considers Marshall’s argument that geographic concentration of industry facilitates specialization. I use Census data on manufacturing plants to examine the relationship between localization of industry and vertical disintegration. I find that establishments located near other establishments within the same industry tend to make more intensive use of purchased inputs than establishments without own-industry neighbors. This relationship only holds among industries that are geographically concentrated; having neighbors makes no difference in geographically dispersed industries. I argue that this pattern is consistent with a model in which increased opportunity for specialization is the reason some industries localize.

On the Turnover of Business Firms and Business Managers

This paper develops a model of small business failure and sale that is motivated by recent evidence concerning how the failure and sale of small businesses vary with the age of the business and the tenure of the manager. This evidence motivates two key features of the model: A match between the manager and the business, and characteristics of businesses that survive beyond the current match. The parameters of the model are estimated, and the properties of this parametric model are studied. This analysis results in a simple characterization of the workings of the small business sector.

Resistance to Technology and Trade Between Areas

Why are methods of production used in an area when more “efficient” methods are available? This paper explores a “resistance to technology” explanation. In particular, the paper attempts to understand why some industries, like the construction industry, have had continued success in blocking new methods, while others have met failure, like the dairy industry’s recent attempt to block bST. We develop a model which shows that how easily goods move between areas determines in part the extent of resistance to new methods in an area.