The Darwinian Returns to Scale

David Rezza Baqaee, UCLA, Emmanuel Farhi, Harvard University, and Kunal Sangani, Harvard University

How does an increase in market size, say due to globalization, affect welfare? We study this question using a model with monopolistic competition, heterogeneous markups, and fixed costs. We characterize changes in welfare and decompose changes in allocative efficiency into three different effects: (1) reallocations across firms with heterogeneous price elasticities due to intensifying competition, (2) reallocations due to the exit of marginally profitable firms, and (3) reallocations due to changes in firms’ markups. Whereas the second and third effects have ambiguous implications for welfare, the first effect, which we call the Darwinian effect, always increases welfare regardless of the shape of demand curves. We non-parametrically calibrate demand curves with data from Belgian manufacturing firms and quantify our results. We find that mild increasing returns at the micro level can catalyze large increasing returns at the macro level. Between 70–90% of increasing returns to scale come from improvements in how a larger market allocates resources. The lion’s share of these gains are due to the Darwinian effect, which increases the aggregate markup and concentrates sales and employment in high-markup firms. This has implications for policy: an entry subsidy, which harnesses Darwinian reallocations, can improve welfare even when there is more entry than in the first-best.