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22 December 2016 | Risk ManagementTopics Online homepage
A number of other terms are used to refer to the phenomenon,
such as share economy, peer economy and collaborative consumption.
"Sharing economy" is increasingly being used as an umbrella term to
cover all forms of shared use of resources that are not constantly
needed and no longer owned exclusively by a buyer.
The term originally referred only to peer-to-peer exchange, i.e. the shared use of goods and services by a number of people. The distinguishing feature was some form of monetary compensation, which differentiated the transactions from purely altruistic mutual aid, donations or the online-based open-source community. The sharing economy now encompasses more and more forms of sharing and borrowing, including where firms themselves are the providers of goods and services. Examples are the various carsharing operations, which sell the right to use a car, or profit-making intermediaries for services such as carpooling and overnight accommodation. A wide range of apps and internet portals enable people to share everyday items like electric screwdrivers, cameras and tents.
For centuries, farmers have formed cooperatives so that they can
share equipment. DIY shops have long hired out tools, and people
used to offer lifts on notice boards. However, the digital age has
made sharing possible in many more areas. Today, you can check out
all the details of virtually any item you need on the internet and
then rent it from another private individual. For example, the
largest sharing-economy platform for booking and letting private
accommodation now has more rooms to rent than the world's biggest
Such forms of sharing by private individuals are now no longer merely a way of saving money, but also symbolise a new culture that places flexible, temporary use above permanent ownership. Young people living in cities, for example, especially value the flexibility offered by carsharing with usage billed by the minute. The basic business model behind it, "use instead of ownership", can be applied not only to physical goods – a well-known example is video and music streaming. This transformation in customer demand is matched by an economic trend among providers towards making costs more variable, with companies preferring to sell rights to use an item in a package including maintenance, insurance, service, etc. rather than ownership. Margins can be higher when various services are "bundled" in this way, and it also enables data on the usage of the products and their users to be collected and analysed.
Earth Overshoot Day – the day in the
year on which humanity exhausts the natural resources available for
the entire year – is occurring earlier and
earlier in the year. Despite more efficient use of resources, it
has so far not been possible to reverse the trend against the
background of a rapidly rising population and increasing
prosperity. If more goods are shared and people attach more
importance to being able to use things than to owning them, the
overall volume of substances needed for production will be lower.
For example, if the residents of a block of flats share seldom used
tools such as power drills and high-pressure cleaners, the
substances needed to produce them will be used more efficiently and
consumption of resources will decrease. This will generally result
in more competition and pressure to innovate among manufacturers.
It could start a trend towards higher product quality because
consumers factor in the possibility of sharing the product when
they buy it. Emissions caused by the manufacturing process will
also be lower. Users of equipment can spend the cash they would
have needed to buy it on other things. Conversely, income can be
earned by renting out items in demand. Consumers become prosumers,
who not only use an item themselves, but also generate income with
it, thus becoming
This could be a scenario for a post-materialistic society, in which sharing would replace ownership. Social interaction in society would increase due to the constant exchange of goods. Young people would no longer want to own their own car as a status symbol if the streets were littered with vehicles they could use at any time. In any event, the ability to use goods and services flexibly would suit the younger generations much more than long-term – and for a time irreversible – ownership.
In a society based mainly on a sharing economy, it is likely
that the overall demand for goods and services would fall, which
would have an adverse effect on incomes and employment. On the
other hand, there would be new growth markets, especially in the
development and supply of digital services relating to sharing.
Employees would perhaps need less money to live on if they bought
fewer things over the long term.
The sharing economy is already resulting in various standards being eroded. The fact that the new ideas are posing a challenge for traditional industries and mechanisms and forcing them to modernise and innovate is certainly beneficial, with the new digital players helping to break down antiquated structures and get rid of regulations that serve only to protect established providers and that are an obstacle to innovation.
However, it cannot be the aim of a sharing economy for tried and tested health, safety and employment standards to be completely disregarded, or for providers of sharing-economy services to barely earn a living wage and be unable to jointly defend their interests. Governments are lagging behind with regulation. They face a dilemma between not wishing to stifle innovation and closing the door to undesirable developments in society.
Nor is the ecological impact necessarily only positive. For example, the sharing economy ultimately not only permits more intelligent consumption, but can also create more, and that additional consumption will not necessarily replace traditional ownership. Car owners might now use carsharing additionally for short distances. The availability of private carpooling could cause people to move from public transport to private taxis with higher emissions.
In such a scenario, the idea of a less consumption-oriented society would evaporate. If private individuals lend each other items for a fee, sharing that was previously free-of-charge will become part of the economy. In the past, apps for the free exchange of items have enjoyed surprisingly little success.
However, the possible effects outlined depend to a large extent on how widespread the sharing economy becomes. Though its significance will doubtless grow, it is still too early to say whether it will one day replace purchase and ownership as the prevailing form of consumption.
Even if it is not yet clear how great an impact the sharing
economy will have on the economy and society, the insurance
industry needs to be prepared. Traditional property and liability
covers will, of course, still be in demand in the future. In many
respects, use in the context of the sharing economy in Germany is
already covered by current policies that aim to reflect what
policyholders actually do in life, insuring common risks such as
policyholders renting items out to people they know (in some cases
for a small a premium). This sometimes includes limited commercial
However, if, for example, flats are let in a quasi-commercial manner and much more frequently than holiday apartments via accommodation portals, the number of claims, and hence pricing for private policies, could be affected in the long term. Here and elsewhere, depending on the jurisdiction, there are some large grey areas regarding liability issues, which creates uncertainty for borrowers, renters and insurers. To avoid legal disputes, some portals insist on insurance for each rental transaction. In some cases, traditional insurers cover these risks in the background for an intermediary portal, while a number of providers, Slice for example, have specialised in the insurance needs of sharing-economy platforms.
Another example is traditional motor insurance, where a
distinction must be made between rental between private individuals
and commercial carsharing. The persons insured to drive an insured
vehicle vary depending on the contract. With some policies, anyone
with a driving licence may drive the vehicle, whilst other cheaper
policies can cover a restricted group of drivers, or even stipulate
that only a single named person may drive the vehicle.
Sharing-economy portals therefore make an additional insurance
taken out via an intermediary compulsory, which could boost demand
However, if commercial carsharing became very widespread the total number of vehicles registered could fall significantly, which could in turn affect motor premium income. At least in big cities, carsharing could transfer demand for insurance from private individuals to commercial carsharing providers. This could be both a curse and a blessing for insurers. If carsharing providers or intermediary portals have all of their "borrowing" transactions covered by an insurer, insurers could write larger amounts in one go, as is already the case with fleet insurance. This could reduce the cost of sales and claims processing. On the other hand, this concentration would also considerably strengthen the carsharing providers' negotiating position, especially if the market were shared by only a few operators. Nor would it be inconceivable for the providers – who are often large car manufacturers – to cover the property and liability risks themselves.
There is certainly a need for clarification on how the telematics data obtained by carsharing providers are to be handled. Insurers must have access to relevant telematics data if they are to calculate premiums and settle claims fairly. Theoretically, a ride-sharing provider could exploit the privileged information it holds and only have the worst drivers insured externally.
Carsharing could also accelerate growth in the use of autonomous vehicles. Initially very expensive, they would at first only be purchased by a small segment of the population, but would probably soon appear in car manufacturers' carsharing pools due to the higher level of utilisation and for marketing purposes.
"Peer-to-Peer (P2P) insurance" is a term often used in the
context of the sharing economy. It refers to the joint insurance of
risk in a small community. The principle is simple. A small group
of insureds forms a pool, in which they all have an identical
insurance policy. The premium, after deduction of administration
expenses, reinsurance costs and a margin for the provider, goes
into a joint pot, which is used to pay claims. Anything left in the
pot at the end of the year is either paid out to the members or
donated to a good cause. This is intended to discourage insurance
fraud. And the insurer has no incentive to reject legitimate claims
as it cannot increase its margin on the business by doing so. If
claims exceed the budget, the reinsurer steps in.
There are now some P2P insurance solutions in the international market with a structure resembling a mutual insurance society with a very small number of members. Though such insurtech players are frequently mentioned in the same breath as the sharing economy, they are not, strictly speaking, part of it. Indeed, traditional insurers also started out as a pool of people who formed an insured community. Each policyholder pays a premium based on the risks they have, and those risks are then covered all the time – no sharing is involved. It would only be part of the sharing economy if a number of policyholders shared policies and each of them could borrow insurance cover exclusively for a limited period on a case-by-case basis.
What is new with these models is that the policyholders at many providers know each other. At So-Sure for example, groups of friends and acquaintances can get together to insure their mobile phones. If the claims in a group are lower than anticipated, the policyholders receive a refund, which should significantly reduce fraud.
Sharing economy is a trend fuelled mainly by digitalisation. Not
everything attributed to the sharing economy is really a part of
it. It may well lead to many changes in the economy and society,
and also for insurers, though we do not expect sharing to replace
ownership in most areas. Fundamental changes are only likely in the
area of mobility, especially in major cities, though they may well
be overshadowed there by even more significant trends such as
Whether they are technically part of the sharing economy or not, business models that offer flexible, temporary use of an item in a package including service, insurance and maintenance will gain ground, and that means new business models for the insurance industry too.
This publication is available exclusively to Munich Re clients. Please contact your Client Manager.