Sep 29th 2015

The Inexorable Logic of the Sharing Economy

by Michael Spence

 

Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. 

MILAN – When Amazon was founded in 1994, and eBay the following year, they harnessed the connectivity of the Internet to create new, more efficient markets. In the beginning, that meant new ways of buying and selling books and collectibles; but now e-commerce is everywhere, offering customers new goods and used goods – and becoming a global force in logistics and retail. Likewise, while today’s sharing-economy companies may be just out of their infancy, their services will one day be ubiquitous.

By now, most people have heard of Airbnb, the online apartment-rental service. The company has just 600 employees but a million properties listed for rent, making it larger than the world’s biggest hotel chains. Of course, what Airbnb offers is different from what hotels provide; but if Airbnb offered options for, say, maid service or food, they could become closer competitors than one might initially imagine.

The insight (obvious in retrospect) underlying Airbnb’s model – and the burgeoning sharing economy in general – is that the world is replete with under-utilized assets and resources. How much time do we spend actually using the things – whether cars, bicycles, apartments, vacation homes, tools, or yachts – that we own? What value do office buildings or classrooms generate at night?

Answers vary by asset, individual, household, or organization, but the utilization numbers tend to be astonishingly low. One recent answer for cars was 8%, and even that may seem high to someone not burdened by long commutes.

But those numbers are changing, as the Internet enables creative new business models that increase not only a market’s efficiency but also the utilization of our various assets. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted. Clearly, not all of them will experience the astonishing growth of Airbnb and Uber. Some, like Rent the Runway for designer clothes and accessories, may find profitable niches; others will simply fail.

The digital platforms that act as the basis of all this e-commerce need to meet two related challenges. The first is to produce a network effect, so that buyers and sellers find one another often enough and rapidly enough to make a business sustainable. Second, the platform must create trust – in the product or the service – on both sides of the transaction.

Trust is crucial to the network effect; hence the need for two-way evaluation systems that encourage buyers and sellers to be repeat users of the relevant platform. Small players can then act in large markets, because – over time – they become known quantities. The power of these platforms derives from overcoming informational asymmetries, by dramatically increasing the signal density of the market.

Indeed, in order to encourage infrequent e-commerce users, innovators and investors are exploring ways to combine the evaluation databases of separate, even rival, platforms. Whatever the legal and technical issues that must be overcome, down the road we can surely imagine the kind of data consolidation already practiced internally by retail giants like Amazon or Alibaba.

There can, of course, be other incentives to support “good” behavior, such as fines and deposits (for bicycles borrowed for too long or not returned, for example). But punitive measures can easily lead to disputes and inefficiency. By contrast, refining evaluation systems holds far more promise.

The urge to exploit under-utilized resources should not be confined to material assets. The McKinsey Global Institute has recently studied internet-based approaches to the labor market and the challenge of matching demand for talent and skills with supply.

Some sharing models – perhaps most – rely on both labor and other assets: for example, a person and his or her car, computer, sewing machine, or kitchen (for home-delivered meals). This throwback to the cottage industries that preceded modern production is possible today because the Internet is lowering the costs of dispersion that once compelled the concentration of work in factories and offices.

Perhaps inevitably, regulatory issues arise, as Uber is now discovering from California to Europe. Taxis and limousines are to some extent protected from competition because they need licenses to operate; they are also regulated for customer safety. But then Uber invades their market with a differentiated product, subject largely to its own regulations for vehicles and drivers. In the process, it threatens to lower the value of licenses just as surely as any official decision to issue new licenses would. No wonder the taxi drivers of Paris and other French cities – hitherto protected from competition – have protested so vehemently (and, on occasion, violently).

An intriguing question is how far the financial sector will embrace the sharing economy. Peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding already represent new ways of matching borrowers with investors. Clearly, issues relating to liability and insurance will have to be addressed in all sharing-economy models, especially financial ones; but these are hardly insurmountable obstacles.

The truth is that the Internet-led process of exploiting under-utilized resources – be they physical and financial capital or human capital and talent – is both unstoppable and accelerating. The long-term benefits consist not just in efficiency and productivity gains (large enough to show up in macro data), but also in much-needed new jobs requiring a broad range of skills. Indeed, those who fear the job-destroying and job-shifting power of automation should look upon the sharing economy and breathe a bit of a sigh of relief.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.
Apr 17th 2019
On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw. “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.” “This place leaves no one untouched. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in front of the burning monument. “We will rebuild,” said the Rector of Notre Dame, “we will rebuild.”
Apr 15th 2019
High-level political purges are gathering pace in Russia. The latest evidence came in late March, with the arrests of Mikhail Abyzov, a former minister for open government affairs, and – two days later – Viktor Ishayev, a former Far East minister and ex-governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Unsurprisingly, the arrests of such senior figures is having a chilling effect among the country’s elites. The authorities have now arrested or imprisoned three former federal government ministers and a supporting cast of regional officials
Apr 8th 2019
The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.
Apr 8th 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be on a roll. He has sent a rocket to the dark side of the moon, built artificial islands on contested reefs in the South China Sea, and recently enticed Italy to break ranks with its European partners and sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s unilateralist posture has reduced America’s soft power and influence. China’s economic performance over the past four decades has been truly impressive. It is now the main trading partner for more than a hundred countries compared to about half that number for the United States. Its economic growth has slowed, but its official 6% annual rate is more than twice the American rate. Conventional wisdom projects that China’s economy will surpass that of the US in size in the coming decade. Perhaps. But it is also possible that Xi has feet of clay.
Apr 2nd 2019
"......as prime minister, May called a snap election in the name of helping her deliver Brexit. She openly dismissed anyone opposing Brexit – which at the very least meant the 16.5m who had voted remain – as “playing games with politics”. In hock to the hardline Brexiteers within her own party, May pushed a for a version of Brexit that would make this small group of around 100 or so individuals happy, regardless of what millions out in the country thought."
Apr 1st 2019
The financial crisis occurred in 2008 because deficient regulation allowed huge risks to develop within the financial system itself. But the depth of the subsequent recession, and the long period of slow growth that followed, was the result not of continued financial system fragility, but of the excessive leverage in the real economy that had developed over the previous half-century. Between 1950 and 2007, advanced economies’ private-sector debt (households and companies) grew from 50% to 170% of GDP and adequate growth seemed attainable only if debt grew far more rapidly than nominal GDP. After the crisis, loan growth turned negative and remained depressed for many years, not because an impaired financial system lacked the capital to extend credit, but because overleveraged households and companies were determined to pay down debt even if interest rates were zero. The same pattern was observed in Japan in the 1990s.
Mar 28th 2019
The American people should have known that something was awry when President Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, announced on Friday, March 22, that he had received special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and would provide a summary of its findings to certain congressional leaders over the weekend. We should have asked: Why Barr’s summary and not Mueller’s? Presumably, Mueller had attached one to his report. It turned out there was a propagandistic reason for this unusual arrangement: Barr issued the best possible interpretation of Mueller’s report – from the president’s standpoint – including perhaps even a twist on what Mueller had said and intended. This allowed the president and his backers to propagate and celebrate what Mueller didn’t say: that the report’s conclusions were a “total exoneration” of Trump. In fact, even Barr’s brief summary, quoting Mueller’s report, said, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Mar 26th 2019
"The 2020 campaign could easily devolve into street violence at Trump’s instigation."
Mar 26th 2019


 

BEIJING – The global economy is weakening, in no small measure because of a deep, widespread sense of uncertainty. And a major source of that uncertainty is the ongoing Sino-American “trade war.”

Mar 19th 2019
Last week, a far-right extremist killed at least 50 people – including a three-year-old child – worshiping at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Neither white supremacy, nor racially motivated terrorist attacks carried out in its name, are new phenomena. Yet the response to far-right terrorism remains thoroughly insufficient.