Future

Uber And Friends: Old Math Of The New Economy

The digital economy promised to create markets that were fluid by definition. But even in the so-called "sharing" economy of mobile applications, there are bound to be winners and losers.

The new smartphone economy
Pablo Maas

BUENOS AIRES — The new digital economy had among its many claims the promise of removing the middleman on the way to building more efficient societies.

In practice, a new class of middlemen and intermediate agents is busy emerging to take their share of the pie. Two months ago in response to complaints by the hotel industry, the city of New York imposed restrictions on renting out flats and rooms through the website Airbnb, an online accomodation agency.

Last week, taxi drivers protested around Europe against Uber, an Internet car rental service between private individuals, operating in 130 cities including several in Latin America such as Rio de Janiero, Bogota and Santiago.

The new firms of the "sharing economy" share several traits.

All were created no more than five years ago when the use of applications on smartphones began to multiply.

They break into regulated markets like hotels or passenger transport without paying the costs (taxes, municipal fees, insurance) that raise the price of their established competitors' services.

They have emerged from Sillicon Valley, where a concentration of investment funds gives them enormous financial leverage. Even before being floated on the capital markets, such firms can attain colossal pricetags, $10 billion in the case of Airbnb and $18 billion for Uber.

But the most important shared trait is that they exploit what economists call the web's externalities, also called Metcalfe's Law, which link the returns and utility of a service to its number of users.

The more people use Windows for example, the more software is developed for it, which will lead to even more people using it.

Google constantly improves its search algorithms to locate information every time it is used by millions of viewers, which attracts more users who are all "working" to improve Google's worth (latest figure, $375 billion).

The problem is that Metcalfe's Law often leads to de facto monopolies. In 1996, the United States broke AT&T's monopoly of the telephone network, dividing it among several firms; and in 2001, Washington accused Microsoft of violating antitrust laws by abusing its dominant market position.

Google has recently been sliding toward a similar fate as Microsoft for dominating the Android operating system for smartphones and facing monopoly-related suits in the United States and Europe, where it constrols 90% of the online search market.

But in some ways, the taxi war erupting in Europe and beyond is a new type of conflict between technology and society. Two dimensions are moving at different speeds and fighting a battle to determine which will change the other.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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