Alan Bollard thinks it is a 50:50 question whether leaders at next month's Apec summit will sign off on a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement which excludes the United States - the TPP11 - or will conclude that they have to renegotiate it.

"It's a bit hard to predict which they are going to do. If they don't get something to sign, you would have to assume it is going to be on the back-burner," said Bollard - the former Reserve Bank governor and Treasury secretary who now heads the Apec secretariat - during a visit home this week.

Officials from the remaining 11 TPP countries - a subset of Apec's 21 Pacific Rim economies - have been working on a draft which freezes or suspends some of the provisions which were included at the United States' behest, in the hope that what remains can be agreed at the Apec summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

But that already challenging timetable has been complicated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision last week to call a snap election on October 22. Japan has been leading the push for a TPP11.

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At this stage it is unclear who will represent New Zealand at the Apec summit: Bill English or Jacinda Ardern. Labour is critical of the TPP text as it stands, for not protecting the right for New Zealand to restrict purchases of existing residential properties to people who live here or are entitled to.

The text does, however, have a carveout of sorts attached to the national treatment provision of the investment chapter: "New Zealand reserves the right to adopt or maintain any taxation measure with respect to the sale, purchase or transfer of residential property." Australia's more populous states have such a tax on foreign investment in residential property, and in principle it could be set at a seriously discouraging level.

Bollard said he suspected there would be some changes to the original text and then it would be up to the Government, whoever that is, to decide whether that was enough for New Zealand to accept. "Would New Zealand hold back if everyone else was going? I can't see that happening."

Investment, including foreign investment, pouring into residential property and bidding up prices was not just an issue for Auckland, he said. Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco, Vancouver and a number of Asian and Latin American cities have similar problems. "It is partly a tax issue. It is not just New Zealand; it is undertaxed in many parts of the world.

"But if you can't deal with it that way, you can get into whether macro-prudential policy can slow things down. Singapore and Hong Kong have tried a lot of different ways of slowing the housing market, partly successful, partly not." Apec, while it is often dismissed as a talking shop, provides a forum where economies can compare notes on such common challenges.

Trade remains a central preoccupation for Apec, whose members account for more than half of global GDP.

But the focus is shifting, Bollard says, from barriers to merchandise trade, at and behind the border, to issues arising from the digital economy.

"For 20 years we have been arguing about obstacles to merchandise trade. Now a lot of what we are arguing about is about data movements, electronic commerce and platforms, and the complex questions they bring up about cyber-security, hacking and data privacy."

There was an emerging battle between two acronyms - "BAT" and "FAG" - about who will set the standards for platforms, he said.

BAT is short for the Chinese digital giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, while FAG stands for Facebook, Amazon and Google. While the latter may be more familiar, the former are especially strong in mobile applications.

Apec's concern in what are very arcane, technical disagreements over standards, is to avoid winner-takes-all outcomes.

It wants inter-connected, open systems which will allow small businesses around the Asia-Pacific region to exploit the opportunities the technology provides for cross-border commerce.

More broadly, the region is having to come to grips with the passing of a model in which export-oriented industrialisation and urbanisation delivered economic growth rates strong enough for governments to ignore the social and environmental scar tissue involved, Bollard said.

But now they have to confront trends such as ageing populations - with the risk of countries getting old before they get rich - rising environmental concerns among burgeoning middle classes, industrial automation hollowing out manufacturing employment, and widening income inequality.

The elastic term "globalisation" serves as a convenient lightning rod for much of that concern.

At a time when international co-operation and multilateral institutions have never been more needed, an ebb tide is running in popular support for them. The attitudes behind Brexit and America First are not confined to Britain and the United States.

Bollard points to a Pew research survey of people in developed countries which asked if trade destroyed jobs. Some 19 per cent said yes, including an arresting 50 per cent in the US.

Perceptions of the extent of immigrant numbers and import penetration were also wildly at odds with the facts, the survey found.

The upshot is a Trump Administration which has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Its trans-Atlantic counterpart, TTIP, is going nowhere and the Nafta trade pact with Canada and Mexico is being renegotiated.

Fears of a trade war breaking out between the US and China, which were prompted by Donald Trump's rhetoric as a candidate and some of the appointments he has made, have so far proven unfounded.

But Bollard points out that some reviews the President has ordered during his first 100 days, into bilateral trade deficits, steel and aluminium, and intellectual property, have yet to report back.

And the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer harbours deep concerns about trade dispute resolution mechanisms and the enforcement of trade agreements.

All of which leaves an organisation like Apec struggling with the problem of how to do multilateralism when the indispensable power has gone AWOL.