Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Friday, 23 April 2010 11:45 UK

The Tesco - a new unit of measurement

Michael Blastland
Different ways of seeing stats

Tesco is minting it, suggest company results this week. In his regular column, Michael Blastland reveals a new measurement for an age of mega numbers: The Tesco.

As shops go, Tesco is the daddy. It's often said that £1 in every £7 spent in the shops is spent at Tesco. The company's global sales this year were about £60bn, UK sales about £40bn.

That's handy. No, not just because it keeps thousands in jobs, pays profits to our pension funds and taxes to the government etc (though let's not forget it has critics). Tesco puts the world in proportion.

In fact, Go Figure can reveal that government ministers increasingly struggle to get their heads round the national finances. For most of the numbers in public argument have gone enormous too. Billions, trillions? Too many zeros. What better way to understand them than with a new unit of measurement? From now on the Treasury will measure the economy and public spending in: The Tesco.

How does that work? Click through the presentation below.

Graphic showing 40bn is equivalent to one Tesco
UK economy is 35 Tesco equivalents, UK spending is 15 and UK debt is 22
Defence is 1 Tesco equivalent, the NHS is 2.5 and the first round of bank bailouts is 1
The UK private sector is worth 28 Tesco equivalents
BACK {current} of {total} NEXT

However, Tesco isn't just a British operation, so if we use the global sales of Tesco as our standard unit, at about £60bn, then...

The UK economy = about 24 Tescos

US economy = about 156 Tescos.

Total UK government spending = about 11 Tescos.

Total UK government debt = about 13 Tescos.

Confidential Cabinet papers reveal that Ed Balls is calling for two Tescos for the Department of Children Schools and Families but may be willing to forgo the men's clothing, while Overseas Aid has put in a bid for an extra frozen veg. Transport has accepted a cut of in-store bakery and toiletries.

Meanwhile, Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco chief executive, only - only? - has to increase his global business relative to the US by about 156 times and Tesco would be the world's biggest economy. Do you think he knows?

Any ideas for other new units of measurement that could simplify the world? Send your suggestions and we'll post the best.

Sources: Public Finances Databank, Public Expenditure Statistical Analysis, Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Note: Why doesn't UK GDP (35 Tescos) equal the private sector (28 Tescos) plus public spending (15 Tescos)? Mainly because a large part of public spending is transfer payments (pensions and benefits and the like), that is, cash simply taken from one person and given to another. This is not part of GDP. So some of the private sector output is counted again in public spending when the money taken in tax is paid out in pensions etc.

Assumptions: GDP approx £1.4tn. Public spending approx 44% of GDP. Market sector output approx 80% of GDP. UK debt to GDP ratio approx 63%. Readers have a sense of humour - the Treasury won't really being doing its sums in The Tesco.

Below is a selection of your comments.

An equation to wrestle with;-

"?" Quangos = 2 Tescos


1 Made'off' = approx 2 Tescos
David H Grant, Northallerton, N Yks, England. DL7 8DA

None of my money passes through Tesco and I like it that way. Yes Tesco provide thousands of jobs but they wipe out local competition such as small independent businesses and sell food at such a low price that our farmers are losing out.

It is becoming more and more difficult to shop somewhere different because Tesco stores sprout up everywhere and some people cannot access any other shops. Surely this is taking advantage?! How are small businesses supposed to survive when Tesco can offer such low prices and provide everything from apples to car insurance?!

There needs to be more control over the expansion and power of UK supermarkets. I could go on but I won't!
Hannah Mintram, Southampton, England

Sack ALL the politicians and get Tescos to run the country. We'd be in profit in no time at all.
David, Bawdeswell, Norfolk, UK

Whilst a Tesco seems a sensible measure of government spending I fear it is too large to apply to government 'savings' - would a Wimbledon be more appropriate(mens and ladies singles champions receive £1m each, 1 Wimbledon = £2m) making the debate over the proposed NIC increase 3,000 Wimbledons rather than a tenth of a Tesco (or any arbitrary product/departmental 'guess' in those stores)?
Bob Newstead, London

A unit of MP defined as the total average cost to the taxpayer of MP's, including salary, expenses, subsidies for food and office facilities, etc. Then measure as a percentage of MP the money spent on Education per child Old Age Pension per pensioner Medical / Injury pension for disabled servicemen Average cost of keeping a convict in prison etc.

While a 'Tesco' might be a useful measurement device, the effect of this retailer on the local community is one of devaluation.

The East End of London is overrun with Tesco Metro stores and the high-density housing projects all around the area seem to be provided with a conditional 'must include a Tesco Metro' in the planning permission. Local shops are being hammered - or in currency parlance, being treated like Sterling on Black Wednesday.
Eoin O'Connor, London, UK

You cannot compare a company's sales to GDP: it's apples and oranges. GDP can be thought of as either a measure of economic value-add, or total spending on final goods and services. Tesco's revenues include intermediate goods: if you want to compare Tesco's revenues to GDP, you need to think of Tesco's revenues as including all the activities of farmers, manufacturers, transportation companies, energy companies, etc. that are involved the production of the final goods Tesco retails. Tesco's own contribution to GDP is the sum of wages + profits, which does not equal revenues (revenues = wages + profits + costs).
Luis Enrique

A helpful perspective on the Big Numbers, at last!

However, it does not help that the media have taken on use of the American quantity "billion" rather than using the "milliard" of 1 000 000 000.

The US "billion" differs from the English "billion" for historic reasons, but the same word appears in most European languages with the English meaning of a million million.
Alex G, Ipswich, GB

How many Tescos are there to a Walmart?

I think we should know.
Darren Heal, Aberdeen, Scotland

I have always thought that the Helen should be the standard unit of beauty, based on legendary beauty Helen of Troy! For example, a woman with a beauty of 1 Helen could launch 100 ships, whereas a woman with a Micro-Helen would be beautiful enough to launch an inflatable dinghy! Let's face it, it would make rating celebrities easier!
Ben, Cardiff

I think we should use the number of incompetent politicians - a new unit! We have it in abundance in the UK
Marcos, London

We already have lots of good new measures. Length is the double decker bus. Area is the football pitch (unless it is a very large area in which case it is the Wales). Volume the olympic swimming pool. What we need is a measure of the truthfulness of politicians, may I suggest the daily waste production of the average male cow would be perfect.
Mike Thomas, West Kirby England

UK Scientific budget = 0.1 Tesco, which is criminally little.
Keith, Loughborough

This is an interesting idea but it has a major flaw: The overall value or trading figures for any company can vary wildly.

This means that it is hard to compare like for like figures in different years.

Or is that taking it a little too seriously? The idea that the whole US economy is only equivalent to 156 Tescos is intriguing.
Phil, London

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