The Trans Pacific Partnership and what it means for the econonmy

The world had not seen a big multinational trade pact for over 20 years. After 7 years of negotiations, United States and eleven other Pacific Rim nations reached a final agreement on 5th October 2015. Now after all the meetings between world political leaders, the final step lies in Obama’s hands: Securing approval from Congress.

Obama has pledged that the TPP would open new markets for U.S. goods and services and establish rules of international commerce that give “our workers a fair shot at the success they deserve.” Congress however is more skeptical. The deal now faces months of scrutiny in Congress, where some bipartisanship opposition was immediate.

Assuming that all goes well and Congress approves the TPP, what would be the likely effects of the new trade agreement on the economy and on America’s influence throughout the world?

The Economic Impact on the TPP is Exaggerated 

Progressives and labor unions rally against the bill think that it will be the end of manufacturing jobs and worker protections in the United States. Conservatives and corporations think that the bill will drive tremendous economic growth in the country. Neither is correct.

Two of the nation’s leading economists, Paul Krugman (left) and Nicholas Gregory Mankiw (right), both agree that the trade agreement will increase domestic income of all the nations involved by 0.5% by 2025. In the United States this amounts to little over $80 billion, certainly nothing to irrelevant, but nothing that will spark tremendous economic growth. The problem is that trade is relatively free throughout much of the world. Borders have been liberalized. The average good traded between these twelve countries has only a 1.4% tariff on it There just isn’t a whole lot to be gained by removing these tariffs.

Growth prospects might be limited however there are other aspects to consider — primarily the interests of US businesses and multinational corporations.

First, intellectual property rights. The US is trying to enhance protections for pharmaceuticals drugs and Hollywood movies. In many of these developing countries that are part of the TPP (Vietnam, Malaysia, Bruinei) knock-off drugs and films are sold to consumers. The TPP would put stricter regulations in place in these countries, ensuring this does not continue.

Agriculture producers also have a lot to gain from this deal. The United States currently produces a surplus of food, and much of that food goes to waste. Opening up international markets could be a huge boon for the agricultural industry.

Against China’s Power

Many of the potential benefits from the trade agreement concern the relationship the United States has with China. Importantly, China is not part of this trade agreement, but they are working on their own trade agreements in the region with many of the same countries in the TPP. China also won’t push for the same environmental regulations and worker protections the United States is currently pushing for.

This is an opportunity for the United States to expand it’s influence in the South Asian region and prevent these countries from falling under China’s influence.

Sharing is the new buying

Why pay excessive prices for goods and services when you can rent it more cheaply from a stranger online? That is the principle behind a range of online services that make it possible for people to share accommodation, household appliances, cars, bikes and other items, connecting owners of underused assets with others who are willing to pay for them. A growing number of businesses, such as Uber, where people use their car to provide a taxi service to paying passengers, or Airbnb, which lets people rent out their spare rooms, act as matchmakers, allocating resources to where they are needed and taking a small percentage in profits in return.

Such peer-to-peer rental business is beneficial for several reasons. Owners make money from underused assets. Airbnb says hosts in San Francisco who rent out their homes average a profit of $440 (after rent) some neighborhoods snagging upwards of $1900 a month. Car owners who rent their vehicles to others using RelayRides make an average profit of $250 a month; some make more than $1,000. Borrowers, meanwhile, benefit from the convenience and pay less than they would if they bought the item themselves, or turned to a traditional provider such as a hotel or car-hire firm. And there are environmental benefits, too: Renting a car when you need it, rather than owning one, means fewer cars are required and fewer resources must be devoted to making them.

The internet plays a vital role in this business. It makes it cheaper and easier than ever to provide accurate supply and demand information. Smart phones with global tracking services can find a nearby room to rent or car to borrow. Online social networks and review systems help develop trust; internet payment systems can handle the billing. All this lets millions of total strangers rent things to each other. The result is known variously as “collaborative consumption,” the “collaborative economy,” “peer economy,” “access economy” or “sharing economy”.

The model of the sharing economy works for items that are expensive to buy and are widely owned by people who do not make full use of them. Bedrooms and cars are obvious examples, but you can also rent fields in Australia, washing machines in France and camping spots in Sweden. As proponents of the sharing economy like to put it, access trumps ownership.

How Did We Get Here and Why Now?

The world is at a turning point. The urbanization of populations continues to rise, and Millennials, are beginning to impact the economy as they enter the work force and start making economic decisions. These changes are most prevalent in big cities and new business have already begun to adapt.

The consumer is changing. The Millennials generation, born in the 1980s to early 2000s, experienced incredible uncertainty, having lived through the 2008 – 2009 financial crisis and struggles with increasing student debt. These financial pressures lead to demand for a more efficient allocation of resources – and that, means they want to own less, be more connected with others and be a part of something bigger than their individual selves.

Social media and social connection is an important aspect of the new lifestyle. A significant percent of modern day free time is spent browsing the social media accounts of our friends, family, celebrities, etc. Now, instead of seeking advice from our personal networks, we have access to the world. Trust and dependency in strangers and technology is a crucial aspect in the success of the shared economy, without the two, we would be stuck in the past

While the classic American dream is to own everything, the millennial’s version is to move to an “asset light” lifestyle. These trends have sparked massive innovation, created new marketplaces and potentially holding the keys to the future.

Premium on Ownership Disappears

Let’s travel back to 1999, when the millennials were still children exploring the internet. Many children took advantage of Napster, a website that enabled users to download songs for free. Illegal? Sure. But no one, except record companies, really cared. There are profound differences between the millennial peer-to-peer downloading and that of their parents or even people five years their senior. From the very beginning the experience of acquiring and consuming media content was based on the premise that access to content should be easy and free.

Now, back to 2015, access to media content is essentially free. Want on-demand access to whatever music you want? Spotify has got you covered. On-demand access to movies and TV shows? Netflix. On-demand access to videos of anything you want to watch? Lose a few hours on YouTube. Of course some of these services require a subscription fee so they are not truly free.

But this is what happens in the shared economy. It emerges when the access to goods and services, such as media streaming, becomes cheap, satisfactory and reliable enough that the premium on physical ownership has disappeared. There is hardly any reason to purchase these goods and services aside from personal habits (for example collecting vinyl) or peculiar requirements.

Ten years ago, to watch a movie released on DVD, there were two options: purchasing or renting.

Of those options, renting was the inferior. Even though it was more expensive to own these DVDs, it was preferred since people had the freedom to watch movies whenever they wanted and prized their DVD collections.

Today, that premium has disappeared. Streaming a movie on Netflix isn’t inferior to owning a DVD the same way that renting was. And ever since then, the extensive access to cheap and easy media content, has lead to new kinds of behaviors have emerged like binge-watching. Similarly, the rise of music streaming services has enabled behaviors such as sharing playlists, a process that used to be time-consuming and effort-intensive. When nobody buys music but still has access to it, social sharing of music emerges as a natural and human behavior.

Obstacles on the road to Success

To truly grasp the scale and greatness of the sharing economy, consider the following data. Airbnb averages 425,000 guests per night, totaling to more than 155 million guest stays annually – nearly 22% more than Hilton Worldwide, which serves 127 million guests in 2014. Five-year old Uber operates in more than 250 cities worldwide and as of February 2015 was valued at $41 billion – a figure that exceeds the market capitalization of companies such as American Airlines and United Continental. According to PwC’s projections, the sharing economy (including travel, car sharing, finance, staffing and music streaming) has the ability to increase global revenues from $15 billion today to around $335 billion by 2025.

It is not hard to find evidence of successful sharing economy but not everyone is as delighted by the rise as its participants and investors. Taxi drivers in America and now Europe have complained loudly (and in the case of Paris, violently) about the intruders who, they say not only are unqualified but also under insured.

Uber has always been plagued with problems with regulation and taxi unions around the world. In 2014, a court in Brussels prohibited drivers from from accepting passengers through UberPOP or face a €10,000 fine.

It is not just car-sharing services that have run into legal problems. Apartment-sharing services have also fallen victims of regulations and other rules governing temporary rentals. Many American cities ban rentals of less than 30 days in properties that have not been licensed and inspected. Some Airbnb renters have been served with eviction notices by landlords for renting their apartments in violation of their leases. In Amsterdam, city officials point out that anyone letting a room or apartment is required to have a permit and to obey other rules. They have used Airbnb’s website to track down illegal rentals.

On top of legal regulations, issues with customers have also become obstacles for sharing businesses. In 2011, Airbnb suffered a rash of bad publicity when a host found her apartment trashed and her valuables stolen after a rental. After some public relations, Airbnb eventually covered her expenses and included a $50,000 guarantee for hosts against property and furniture damage.

Peering into the Future

The sharing economy can be compared to online shopping, which began in America 15 years ago. In the beginning, people were not too sure about the vendors and didn’t trust the services. However with time and perhaps a successful purchase on amazon or two, people felt safe buying from other vendors too. Now consider Ebay, a company started as a peer-to-peer platform, now is now dominated by professional “power sellers” (many of whom started as ordinary Ebay users).

Big corporate companies dominating the market are getting involved too. Avis, a car rental firm has shares in Zipcar, its car sharing rival. So do GM and Daimler, two car manufacturers. In the future, companies may follow a hybrid business model, listing excess capacity on Peer-to-Peer websites. In the past, new ways of doing things online have put the old ways out of business. But they have often changed them.

We will have to wait and see which on-demand services start to gain traction with mainstream markets and which wont’t. It is not likely that in thirty years time our whole lives will be on demand and we won’t hold ownership. But a major possibility is products and industries most likely to be disrupted by the sharing economy would be things that we possess but not necessarily own. An example would be Airbnb. It has disrupted the demand for owning vacation homes (something you possess) and tourist hotels (something you don’t possess but is still “yours” in a way that an Airbnb isn’t).