Thirlwall's Law at 40
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Thirlwall's Law at 40

Edited by Thomas Palley, Esteban Pérez Caldentey and Matías Vernengo

2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Anthony P. Thirlwall’s classic paper that laid out what became known as Thirlwall’s law. This article introduced and provided empirical evidence in favor of the proposition that the long-run rate of growth of an economy compatible with balance-of-payments equilibrium can be approximated by the simple rule of the ratio of the growth of exports to the income elasticity of demand for imports.
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Thirlwall’s law, external debt sustainability, and the balance-of-payments-constrained level and growth rates of output

Gustavo Bhering, Franklin Serrano and Fabio Freitas


Thirlwall’s law, given by the ratio of the rate of growth of exports to the income elasticity of imports is a key result of balance-of-payments-constrained long-run growth models with balanced trade. Some authors have extended the analysis to incorporate long-run net capital flows. We provide a critical evaluation of these efforts and propose an alternative approach to deal with long-run external debt sustainability, based on two key features. First, we treat the external debt-to-exports ratio as the relevant indicator for the analysis of external debt sustainability. Second, we include an external credit constraint in the form of a maximum acceptable level of this ratio. The main results that emerge are that sustainable long-run capital flows can positively affect the long-run level of output, but not the rate of growth compatible with the balance-of-payments constraint, as exports must ultimately tend to grow at the same rate as imports. Therefore, Thirlwall’s law still holds.

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