Xiaoli Etienne

We are proud to call our faculty research associates part of the RRI family. And as in any family, sharing information helps to strengthen bonds. In academia, it also provides one another with background information that may be useful in identifying collaborators and establishing relationships for future publications and research.

Therefore, each quarter, we will be profiling a different faculty research associate.

We never know what experiences during our childhood will shape our future. For Dr. Xiaoli Etienne, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, it was the trips she spent with her father visiting farms in rural China. As her father, who worked for the local government’s agricultural division, conducted field surveys, young Xiaoli was learning one of life’s harsh lessons― that each year poor farmers in China were taking life-or-death financial risks, and it was this revelation that drove her to choose agricultural economics as her career.

In college, Etienne learned that applied economics is a critical tool to understand poverty and risk as well as to explain social phenomena and human behavior, solve real-world problems, and educate policymakers. Through applied economics, she would be able to benefit everyone involved in the economy, including the poor farmers in China.

Currently, Etienne is working on various issues in food, agricultural, and energy markets, in particular those related to price volatility. Her short-term goals are ambitious: to broaden her research fields (including regional analysis) while maintaining her research productivity in the area of commodity market analysis. “Eventually I would like to establish myself as an expert in agricultural and resource economics, as an educator that inspires others to dream bigger and motivates them to work harder, and as an economist that contributes to policy-making that challenges the status quo and creates a better world,” Etienne said.  Some of the researchers in her field that she admires and respects include, but are not limited to, Holbrook Working, William Tomek, Eugene Fama, Bruce Gardner, and Anne Peck.

She and her husband, an assistant professor in WVU’s Department of Mathematics, came to the University in 2014. Xiaoli was drawn by WVU’s high research productivity, particularly its energy-related research, and she was particularly excited that the University encourages and fosters creativity, offers a friendly working environment, and is close to Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, PA.

“I have found the people in Davis College are quite friendly and hard-working, and my colleagues and students commit themselves to their work,” Etienne said. “They are a constant motivator for me to tackle research problems, and while everyone is willing to share their views or advice, I am particularly grateful and indebted to Dean Robison and my division chair Gerard D’Souza, both of whom have assisted me in my professional development and are there when I need advice to handle a challenging situation.”

The findings for some of her research have been surprising. Recently, for example, she and her Ph.D. student Alexandre Scarcioffolo investigated spatial price integration of natural gas markets in various regional markets in the U.S. Historically, Etienne points out, natural gas was one of the most highly regulated markets in the U.S., but this changed in the late 1970s when the industry began to deregulate amid natural gas shortages. One interesting question emerged: has the deregulation achieved its intended goal of developing a nationwide spot market that efficiently allocates natural gas? To find the answer, Etienne and Scarcioffolo evaluated the degree to which regional markets in the U.S. natural gas industry are connected and the role each market plays in the determination of national prices. The unexpected finding was that while the regional markets have become more integrated over time, the integration process seems to have slowed down recently.

“In particular,” Etienne said, “the spillover index we constructed—which measures how a shock in one market affects the price in another market―has declined over the past few years. This is surprising because this corresponds to the recent shale boom that has flooded the market with cheap natural gas.” Given the increasing completion, she expected the regional markets to be more connected. “However, this may not be that surprising after all since natural gas demand, particularly in the short run, is quite inelastic. This means that shocks in one market may have a smaller impact on another market when the overall price level is low. The issue can further be complicated by pipeline capacity constraints, a lack of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities, and other regional-specific demand and supply factors.”

Etienne incorporates many regional elements into her research and classes.  In addition to the natural gas market integration paper, she is currently investigating the determinants of price linkages between various regional natural gas markets in the U.S. Such factors may include the geographic distance, pipeline transmission capacity, industry growth, and development of renewable energy, just to name a few. “This is a multifaceted problem, and we are tackling it from both spatial and time series perspectives,” Etienne said.  In another paper, which is still in the early exploratory stage, she plans to use input-output models to estimate the economic impacts of rising foreign competition in the international markets faced by the U.S. grain sectors. “This is a very timely issue because the U.S.’s role as the leading grain exporter in the world is being challenged by South American countries,” Etienne said.

Etienne suggests that graduate students aiming for success would do well to sharpen their programming skills, particularly “R” and Matlab. In an era of big data, she says, the ability to efficiently process, clean, analyze, and make inferences from data are the essential skills for applied economists.

Some of her accomplishments include more than 24 publications in professional journals, conference proceedings, and the popular press (articles for the general public), refereeing articles for more than twenty professional journals, serving on various committees within WVU and in the profession, advising a number of Ph.D. and M.S. students, and teaching two graduate classes and one undergraduate course. She was awarded the Divison’s outstanding researcher in 2015 and was named a 2015 Big XII faculty fellow. More recently, one of her papers was listed as the top 10 most cited articles in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (AJAE) in 2017, the profession’s top journal.

With all the demands on her time, it’s hard to imagine how she can find time for activities outside her academic life. She finds balance by following time management expert Laura Vanderkam who says, “Time is highly elastic. We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we need or want to put into it.” Through Vanderkam’s Ted talk titled “How to Gain Control of your Free time,” Etienne learned that managing time is about choosing priorities. She enjoys spending time with her husband and two little boys and traveling around the world with them; her goal is to visit all states in the U.S. (26 so far), all provinces in China (16 so far), and all continents in the world (5 so far; only Africa and Australia remain).