Institute Working Paper 12

Location as an Asset

Adrien Bilal | Princeton University
Esteban Rossi-Hansberg | Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute and Princeton University

Published August 7, 2018

The location of individuals determines their job opportunities, living amenities, and housing costs. We argue that it is useful to conceptualize the location choice of individuals as a decision to invest in a ‘location asset’. This asset has a cost equal to the location’s rent, and a payoff through better job opportunities and, potentially, more human capital for the individual and her children. As with any asset, savers in the location asset transfer resources into the future by going to expensive locations with good future opportunities. In contrast, borrowers transfer resources to the present by going to cheap locations that offer few other advantages. As in a standard portfolio problem, holdings of this asset depend on the comparison of its rate of return with that of other assets. Differently from other assets, the location asset is not subject to borrowing constraints, so it is used by individuals with little or no wealth that want to borrow. We provide an analytical model to make this idea precise and to derive a number of related implications, including an agent’s mobility choices after experiencing negative income shocks. The model can rationalize why low wealth individuals locate in low income regions with low opportunities even in the absence of mobility costs. We document the investment dimension of location, and confirm the core predictions of our theory with French individual panel data from tax returns.


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