At least once a year The Economist publishes its ‘hamburger standard’ exchange rates for currencies. It is a light-hearted attempt to see if currencies are exchanging at their purchasing-power parity rates. The test is the price at which a ‘Big Mac’ McDonald’s hamburger sells in different countries!
According to this simplified version of the purchasing-power parity theory, exchange rates should adjust so that a Big Mac costs the same in dollars everywhere (see Economics 8th edition Box 25.4).
These Big Mac exchange rates can be used to compare various prices and incomes between countries. The article linked below from The Guardian compares minimum wages between European countries in Big Mac terms.
There are 25 countries across Europe which have minimum wages. A clear pattern of minimum wage rates can be seen: although actual exchange rates understate the purchasing power of incomes in poorer European countries compared to richer ones, minimum wages, even in purchasing-power standard terms, are still higher in the richer countries.
Luxembourg’s minimum wage buys you just about three Big Macs in an hour, while most of northern Europe (and France) between 2–2.5 Big Macs. Moving south, the minimum wage nets about one Big Mac an hour. As we progress east, it begins to cost more than an hour of work on the minimum wage in order to afford a Big Mac.
Of course, there are other factors determining the dollar price of a Big Mac other than the failure of exchange rates to reflect purchasing-power parities. Nevertheless, using the Big Mac index in this way does give a useful preliminary snap shot of differences in what minimum wages can buy in different countries.
Comparing the minimum wage across Europe using the price of a Big Mac The Guardian datablog, Alberto Nardelli (25/9/14)
Minimum wage statistics Eurostat (Sept/14)
Earnings Database Eurostat
- What is meant by ‘purchasing-power parity exchange rates’?
- Why may actual exchange rates not accurately reflect the purchasing power of currencies within countries?
- Using the link to Eurostat article above, compare Big Mac minimum wages with (a) actual minimum wages and (b) minimum wages expressed in purchasing-power standard terms.
- Using the links to the Eurostat article and Eurostat data, describe how the proportion of employees earning minimum wages varies across European countries. What factors determine this proportion?
- Using the same links, describe how the monthly minimum wage as a proportion of average monthly earnings varies across European countries. Explain these differences.
The USA has complained for a long time now that the Chinese currency is undervalued. This makes it hard for American domestic firms to compete with cheap Chinese imports and for US exporters to sell to China. This was a major talking point at the G20 conference in Korea in November 2010: see Seoul traders and the following clip from Reuters: Obama pressures China at G20.
So is the yuan undervalued and, if so, has there been any appreciation to reduce the degree of undervaluation? In 2005, the yuan was pegged at $0.12 (or $1 = ¥8.28). In July 2005 the peg was relaxed and the yuan has appreciated. By mid-December 2010, the yuan was trading at $0.15 (or $1 = ¥6.66) – a 25% appreciation since 2005. In real terms the appreciation has been greater. Chinese inflation is above US inflation. Latest figures for Chinese inflation show consumer prices rising by an annual rate of 5.1%. This compares with 1.2% in the USA. This makes the real appreciation greater.
But despite this appreciation, the USA maintains that the Chinese currency is still considerably undervalued. Estimates for this undervaluation are around 40%. In its latest ‘Big Mac Index’, The Economist calculates this undervaluation at 41.2%. Links to the relevant data are given below. Read the articles and then use the data to answer the questions.
China’s soaring inflation could hit UK shoppers The Telegraph, Richard Tyler (11/12/10)
China says November inflation rises to 5.1 percent Bloomberg, Cara Anna (11/12/10)
Jump in China inflation keeps focus on tightening Reuters, Aileen Wang and Simon Rabinovitch (11/12/10)
China inflation rise fastest since July 2008, exceeds market forecast The Australian, Aaron Back (11/12/10)
China’s top economic planner says December CPI likely below 5% Xinhuanet (11/12/10)
Yuan rises vs dollar after strong trade data The Economic Times of India (11/12/10)
Who wins if Yuan is significantly revalued? International Business Times (12/12/10)
Currency war reveals growing global fissures AsiaOne (11/12/10)
How China’s Inflation Policy Will Help the Yuan / Dollar Exchange Rate Seeking Alpha, Ed Dolan (29/11/10)
Monthly Data Chinese National Bureau of Statistics
US Inflation Rate in Percent for Jan 2000-Present InflationData.com
BIS effective exchange rate indices Bank for International Settlements
Spot Exchange Rates Bank of England
IMF World Economic Ourlook Data Find The Best
Economic Data freely available online The Economics Network
The Big Mac Index The Economist
- Using Bank for International Settlements data above (broad indices), plot the nominal and real exchange rate indices for the US dollar and the yuan from 2005 to the present day. How much have (a) the nominal and (b) the real yuan exchange rate indices appreciated against the dollar exchange rate indices? (Note: you can use the Excel data to plot all four series on the same diagram.)
- Why has the Chinese rate of inflation risen?
- How are the anti-inflationary policies being considered by the Chinese authorities likely to impact on (a) the yuan exchange rate (b) the Chinese current account?
- In what ways do the Chinese authorities intervene in the foreign exchange market?
- What are the implications of the People’s Bank of China increasing the amount of yuan that can be traded on currency markets and increasing the amount of yuan-denominated debt?
- What are meant by purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates? Is the Big Mac index a good guide to the degree to which a currency is under- or overvalued?
Trade relations between the USA and China have deteriorated recently. There are two key issues: the exchange rate and trade protectionism.
The Chinese currency, the yuan or renmimbi, since 2005 has been officially pegged to a trade-weighted basket of other currencies. In recent months, however, as the dollar has fallen relative to other major currencies, so too has the yuan. It seems as if the peg is with the dollar, not with the basket. From March to December 2009, the exchange rate index of the dollar depreciated by 16 per cent. Yet the exchange rate between the yuan and the dollar hardly changed. In other words, the yuan depreciated along with the dollar against other world currencies, such as the euro, the pound and the yen. The trade advantage that this was giving to the USA with other countries did not apply to China.
Complaints continued that cheap Chinese goods were flooding into the USA, threatening US jobs and undermining US recovery. The Chinese currency was argued to be undervalued relative to its purchasing-power-parity rate. For example, the July 2009 Big Mac index showed the yuan undervalued by 49% against the dollar (see Economics 7e, Box 25.4 for a discussion of the Big Mac index).
The USA, and other countries too, have been putting diplomatic pressure on the Chinese to revalue the yuan and to remove subsidies on their exports. At the same time various protectionist moves have been taken. For example, on December 31 2009 the US International Trade Commission voted to impose tariffs on the $2.8 billion worth of steel-pipe imports from China. The tariffs would be between 10.4% and 15.8%.
The following articles look at these trade and exchange rate issues. Are we heading for a deepening trade war between the USA and China?
Currency contortions The Economist (17/12/09)
Beijing dismisses currency pressure Financial Times, Geoff Dyer (28/12/09)
China aims for 10pc growth and won’t appreciate yuan The Australian (29/12/09)
Wen stands firm on yuan China Daily (28/12/09)
China’s premier says banks should curb lending BusinessWeek, Joe McDonald (27/12/09)
China insists will reform yuan at its own pace Forexyard, Aileen Wang and Simon Rabinovitch (31/12/09)
US slaps new duties on Chinese steel Financial Times, Alan Rappeport (30/12/09)
Chinese Steel Pipes Face Heavy U.S. Duties BusinessWeek, Daniel Whitten (31/12/09)
The US-China Trade War Is Here The Business Insider, Vincent Fernando (10/12/09)
Year dominated by weak dollar Financial Times, Anjli Raval (2/1/10)
- Explain what is meant by the ‘purchasing-power-parity (ppp) exchange rate’.
- Why is the yuan (or ‘renmimbi’) undervalued in ppp terms?
- What are the the implications of an undervalued currency for that country’s current and financial account of the balance of payments?
- What would be the implications of a revaluation of the yuan for (a) China and (b) China’s trading partners?
- Discuss Premier Wen Jiabao’s statement, “The basic stability of the renminbi is conducive to international society”.
- What forms of protectionism have been used by (a) China and (b) China’s trading partners? Who gains and who loses from such protectionism?