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Starbucks and the overvalued yuan

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Is latte at Starbucks in China overpriced or is the local currency, the yuan, unexpectedly overvalued? The former is certainly more plausible, but it might be equally true that the yuan, if not overvalued, is at least not as undervalued as other measures suggest.

This conclusion would come from my proposed Grande Latte index, the caffeinated equivalent of The Economist’s Big Mac index. The Grande Latte index, like its burger brother, is a light-hearted attempt to find a basket of goods that can be compared across countries to assess purchasing power parity (PPP) and, by extension, fair currency value. There are serious flaws, but I will save these for, ahem, the bottom of this blog.

The cross-country cost comparison of grande (i.e. medium in Starbucks-speak) lattes shows that the Seattle-based coffee chain’s brew is rather dear in China. A grande latte costs $3.75 in the United States but $4.10 in China in dollar terms. It is even more expensive in Japan. The conclusion, that the yen is currently overvalued by 23 percent, accords well with the views of many analysts. But the idea that the yuan might be overvalued by 9 percent flies in the face of pretty much all conventional wisdom. It is also a drastically different perspective than that of the Big Mac index, which in its latest edition showed the yuan to be 49 percent undervalued.

The Grande Latte index is certainly not the gospel truth, though nor is burgernomics. The truth, as ever, probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes — i.e. the yuan is undervalued, but not to the tune of 49 percent. One thing is clear. Arguing that the yuan is undervalued is easy enough, but the actual degree of undervaluation is a matter for serious debate. With Beijing not about to let the exchange rate float freely, the market may have to wait a few years more before getting a chance to deliver its own verdict.

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