If all international trade was done through eBay, the world would be 30 per cent richer

Frictionless trade is closer than ever before online, according to a new paper.

If all trade was as frictionless as it is on eBay, the world's real income could be almost 30 per cent higher, according to a new research paper from the European Trade Study Group, in a phenomenon known as the "death of distance".

The study looks at a dataset of cross-border transactions performed over eBay, modified to only include sales from businesses which were concluded with a fixed price; in other words, no auctions, and no customer-to-customer sales. While this removes the majority of transactions from their dataset, the modification is necessary to make eBay sales more accurately represent offline trade.

They find that, unsurprisingly, the effect of distance on trade volume is lessened online. Controlling for standard trade costs "such as the absence of a common language, a common legal system, a border, a colonial history, or a free-trade agreement", the distance effect is 65 per cent smaller online than offline.

That effect may be due to a mixture of three different frictions on trade: shipping costs, information frictions (you can, after all, only export to a country if you know someone there who wants to buy from you), or trust frictions.

Shipping costs appear to have little to do with the death of distance online – partially, it appears, because they have little correlation with distance. For instance, the average shipping cost, as a proportion of the cost of the item, is less from the USA to Iceland than it is for shipping from the USA to Canada or Mexico:

Instead, the real reduction in friction comes from the provision of both trust and information; as a result, "the distance-effect reduction is largest for exporting countries with high levels of corruption and which are relatively unknown to consumers, as measured by Google search results."

Worldwide, the increase in real income achieved by the reductions in distance effects is equal to 29 per cent, but that increase is spread very unevenly. At one end of the extreme, Brazil would see an increase in real income of 80 per cent, if only it could conduct all its trade with the rest of the world as efficiently as it does when that trade is on eBay.

At the other end, Belgium would actually lose out. It currently gains from information frictions, and would lose 0.9 per cent of its real income from trade if those frictions were abolished. It is the only country in the dataset which would lose out in such a way, though, and Britain would be up by over 40 per cent.

Of course, the study doesn't address every aspect of the online world. One of the reasons why eBay is so frictionless is that the company takes a (rather large) cut of the transaction in order to keep that infrastructure maintained. If all the world's trade was carried out on eBay, its annual revenue from international transactions alone would be in the order of $400bn, a significant increase on the $12bn it's earned in the last year. And let's not even talk about the Paypal fees.

Still, the paper strikes a blow in favour of those of us who think there are still significant gains to be made from the online economy.

eBay. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation