Friday, April 10, 2015

Study Finds Low-Income Persons Gain Most from 'Sharing Economy' Markets

I have written several follow-up blogs to a Perspectives from FSF Scholars entitled “The Sharing Economy: A Positive Shared Vision for the Future,” which was published last year. These pieces have referred to the welfare gains consumers have experienced in the new “sharing economy.” Many new companies employing Internet-based applications, such as Airbnb and Uber, have emerged to provide competition to traditional business models and subsequently pushed down prices in their respective markets.
In the Perspectives from FSF Scholars entitled “The Sharing Economy: A Positive Shared Vision for the Future,” Randolph May and I stated the following:
These new online applications facilitate the exchange of goods and services in a way which easily enables a range of peer-to-peer connections and which reduces transaction costs. Individuals have always been able to sell or borrow goods and services through yard sales and community markets, but the Internet has changed the process with a faster, easy-to-use information exchange. For over a decade now, companies like E-bay and Craigslist have used the Internet to lower the transaction costs of modern commerce. But more recently, an influx of new companies and Internet-based applications has emerged enabling individuals to more easily “share” their underutilized things, including, for example, their homes, apartments, and cars.
In a newly-published March 2015 scholarly paper entitled “Peer-to-Peer Rental Markets in the Sharing Economy,” New York University professors Samuel Fraiberger and Arun Sundararajan empirically tested how rental markets within the “sharing economy” are impacting consumers. Professors Fraiberger and Sundararajan found, with statistical significance, that the benefits of “sharing economy” markets have a greater impact on low-income persons than high-income persons.
The new study states:
We highlight this finding because it speaks to what may eventually be the true promise of the sharing economy, as a force that democratizes access to a higher standard of living. Ownership is a more significant barrier to consumption when your income or wealth is lower, and peer-to-peer rental marketplaces can facilitate inclusive and higher quality consumption, empowering ownership enabled by revenues generated from marketplace supply, and facilitating a more even distribution of consumer value.
The explanation of the results is quite simple. Due to the accountability and transparency that many sharing applications provide about their users, the emergence of trust between individuals to share their goods and services has shifted consumer preferences from owning to renting. People who could not afford to own a house, car, or even a power saw can now more easily rent them from others and ultimately enjoy a higher standard of living than they would have otherwise. Additionally, people who would have owned a car or power saw in the past might now rent them instead, saving a significant portion of their income.
Of course, high-income people gain from the sharing economy as well. But the savings accumulated from a shift in owning to renting is more valuable to people with low incomes than to people with high incomes. In economic terms, this is the law of diminishing marginal returns. All else equal, each dollar earned is valued less than the previous one.
Similarly, low-income people, who already own goods that can be rented out, stand to gain more from these transactions than high-income people. The extra income from sharing a car with someone is much more valuable to a poor college student than it is to a wealthy professional. As I have written before, Airbnb, for example, makes traveling less expensive, not only because it provides competition – and often lower prices – to traditional hotels, but also because travelers can share their living space while away. (See here.) In other words, as a result of the sharing economy, the same traveler on the same trip may realize economic benefits in his or her capacity as both a lessor and lessee.
The emergence of the “sharing economy” has provided large welfare gains to the economy as a whole. Consumers have additional, and often less expensive, options in everyday markets, and entrepreneurial activity has been created by ordinary people because Internet-enabled applications have vastly lowered the barriers to market entry.  
Professors Fraiberger and Sundararajan’s paper is significant in its use of empirical data to conclude that access to peer-to-peer rental markets has the effect of increasing savings for renters and increasing incomes for suppliers. While this economic effect of the “sharing economy” is beneficial to all market participants, it proves most valuable to low-income persons. The paper makes for an interesting read as well as a scholarly contribution to the limited academic literature regarding the new “sharing economy.”