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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.