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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.