Should governments subsidize firms’ own innovation or adoption of foreign technology? How does the answer change over different stages of development? To answer these questions, we digitize the universe of technology transfer contracts between domestic and foreign firms in South Korea during its growth miracle period. This data has novel information on the price of technologies. We find that, when the productivity gap between domestic and foreign firms is larger, (i) productivity increases more after adoption, (ii) the adoption fee is lower, and (iii) domestic firms more often choose technology adoption over innovation. Motivated by these findings, we build a two-country growth model with endogenous adoption and innovation decisions. Foreign firms can sell technologies for an endogenous fee, internalizing the future loss of profit due to stronger competition with domestic firms. By construction, adoption can raise domestic firms at most to the technology level of foreign firms. Therefore, as domestic firms close the productivity gap, the expected productivity gain from adoption decreases, making an adoption subsidy less effective than an innovation subsidy. We evaluate Korea’s technology policies since 1973, which started with an adoption subsidy and shifted to an innovation subsidy as the productivity of Korean firms converged with that of foreign competitors. Our result suggests that this state-dependent policy increased consumption-equivalent welfare by 5%, which raises welfare more than time-invariant policies that subsidize only innovation or adoption throughout. Our analysis also shows that the optimal year to switch from an adoption to an innovation subsidy would have been 1985, when Korea’s GDP reached 55% of Japan’s.
Working Paper • Research Theme 1: Firms, Frictions and Spillovers, and Industrial Policy, Research Theme 5: Political Economy and Public Investment