What does a latte tell us about currencies? Very little, actually

Purchasing power parity is not the same as the Big Mac Index.

The Wall Street Journal sees what the Economist is having, and it likes it. The latter's Big Mac Index is famous for demonstrating the variation in prices for the same good around the world. Despite Big Macs being basically identical no matter where you are, the dollar price varies wildly, from $6.81 in Switzerland down to just $1.82 in India. It's so influential that it's widely thought that Argentina is exerting pressure on its branches of McDonalds to keep the price down so as to not provide evidence of the nation's tinkering with reported inflation.

So now the WSJ wants a piece of the action, and has created its Starbucks Latte Index. I mean, it doesn't call it that, but that's what they're thinking:

Click to embiggen.

But like the Economist, the WSJ draws the wrong inferences from the variation. They both have a habit of using the data to illustrate purchasing power parity, the idea that some currencies are under- or over-valued because a comparable basket of goods varies in price. So the WSJ's Ira Iosebashvili writes:

One way to determine how currencies stack up is purchasing-power parity, or PPP, which compares the amount of currency needed to buy the same item in different countries. A grande latte at Starbucks, for example, costs $4.30 in New York, but the equivalent of $9.83 using Norwegian krone in Oslo, and just $3.92 in Turkish lira in Istanbul.

Starbucks Lattes and Big Macs both have another unique feature, though, which renders them less useful for comparing the strength of a currency overall: they are both made up of highly fungible goods, produced in two of the most integrated supply chains in the world. McDonalds, for instance, doesn't need to buy artisanal wheat from an individual farm; it can just trade in "wheat" as a mass-produced, internationally-traded com oddity. The company has even invented a product to sell to take advantage of variations in the cost of pork, the McRib.

In fact, for Starbucks, that's even more true than it is for MacDonalds. While Maccy D's has made a big deal out of its promise to only use British beef in its British burgers, most of the countries Starbucks operates in in don't grow their own coffee. That has to be imported from South America or North Africa, and so a Starbucks in London will almost certainly be paying the same for its coffee as a branch in Oslo, despite the difference in retail price being over $6.

What the Starbucks and Big Mac indices actually show is the price of unskilled labour and retail space. Those are the parts of the companies' businesses which, no matter how hard they try, they can't erase national differences from. Operating in Oslo, land of high taxes, is always going to be expensive, no matter how strong or weak the krone is.

The Starbucks index even makes this clear, thanks to the fact that the WSJ has included three American cities. A latte in New York City costs more than one in Detroit, a difference that self-evidently can't be due to the currency variation.

But the really important news is that London is actually one of the cheapest cities in the world for a Starbucks latte. Still overpriced for what it is, though.

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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad