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Financial data displays

Source: Économie Politique, Librairie Paul Jammes, Catalogue 276, 2009.

-- Edward Tufte


The New York Times, February 6, 2002

This is a superb narrative of a stock price (graph), a narrative of the collapse of Enron (words annotating a time scale), and a narrative of lousy investments by the Florida state pension fund (table). The graph, table, and words are linked together very nicely. The caption at the top suggests a possible cause of the lousy investments. (The Florida state pension fund behaved like someone who left a jacket on the airplane; they were trying to get back on while everyone else was getting out.) Data sources are also indicated.

The major defect is that no designer is named. Someone did this good work and they should get credit for it. The Times gives the names of reporters and photographers; this graphic is a substantial piece of journalism, as valuable as a photograph or news story. Who did it?

It would be useful to have a longer time-horizon, perhaps reaching back a full year. Maybe the Florida pension fund was buying Enron stock every week for a year on automatic pilot or something. Or maybe not; a longer time-horizon will tell us that and thereby strengthen or weaken the evidence for mischief with regard to stock purchases during the collapse.

This is an excellent, first-rate news graphic. And it was done under deadline pressure at a daily newspaper!

-- Edward Tufte

On Sunday March 3, 2002, as the lead story in Money & Business ( registration required), the New York Times ran a long, sad, and devastating story about Alfred Harrison of Alliance Capital whose investments in Enron for the Florida state pension fund lost $328 million, among the largest losses suffered by any Enron shareholder. It is a tangled tale of crony capitalism; among many other unfortunate goings-on, Bradford met with Enron executives, including Lay and Skilling, 10 times in 2001 (and 4 times during the 6 weeks of the final collapse shown in the graphic).

For this story, the Times ran the same graphic that they ran on February 6, which was of course, our Graph of Day back then. There were a few minor changes in typography (and a new title "Riding an Avalanche to the End"; the earlier title was also a simile "Buying as the Ship Went Down"), but otherwise it was exactly the same excellent graphic.

This sort of repeat is something of an innovation for a newspaper and I think it is a very good idea. Journalists are wary of "olds", but this graphic nails down the short-run data-history of the investments and is perfectly appropriate for both stories.

But the mystery remains: who constructed this excellent news graphic? The Times credits reporters, photographers, and illustrators by name. Graphical journalists should also be named.

-- Edward Tufte

Another annotated time-series for the Enron Follies. This one from Vanity Fair, April 2002, p.188.

-- Edward Tufte

The lawyer's graphic goes much further back in time (good) and also has more day-by-day detail (also good) than the Enron graphic in The New York Times. Longer time-periods and finely textured detail help the credibility of displays.

-- Edward Tufte

Since it was asked twice, I thought I might offer an answer. The mystery author of the featured graphic is Hugh K. Truslow, a Graphics Editor at The New York Times. I happen to know him well though he does not know that I am hereby blowing his cover.

-- EKR (email)

Great team effort and a lot of extra hours

-- Ryan Kadota, Patrick Daniels (email)

During the last 6 months, the Enron-tanking architecture has been widely used, by the Times and others, to describe the collapse of corrupt companies. That architecture nicely combines statistical graphics, tabular data, and words to narrate scandals and their consequent losses.

The analytical problem with rotting-apple design is that it describes just one case, an anecdote. Always the questions with case studies are: What does it mean? One or many rotten apples? What is the overall relevance? That is, enough microeconomics; it is time for macroeconomics.

In the last few days, the Times did at last produce an aggregate view: the total wealth of Americans has declined by slightly more than 20% in the last year or two, something like a $10 trillion decline. This graphic was a rather short time-series. Perhaps someone can post the URL or, even better, find and show the series for a good many years (in inflation-adjusted dollars please!).

-- Edward Tufte

Substantial conflicts of interest compromised business-school case studies of Enron and others, as the professors preparing the case studies (often celebrations of corporate glory) were simulaneously serving as consultants or advisors to the company. Those case studies, now hurriedly being revised or actively supressed (by HBS, for example), served as textbooks in MBA programs. Apparently few of the case studies acknowledged the possible conflict of interest. In contrast, some medical journals now require a statement from authors about possible conflicts of interest between their research and their financial support, a statement that is published along with the research article.

University bureaucrats are now busy trying to recover from 6 different Kenneth Lay professorial chairs and, it is claimed, 40 Arthur Andersen Professors of Accounting!

-- Edward Tufte

Only a small commentary about form: I would have liked to see the totals in the columns "Number of Shares" and "Price Paid (Millions)". Otherwise simply fine.

-- Octavio Cox (email)

I was recruited by the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory commission to build an analytic staff to avoid "future Enrons." I had been struggling to get our analysts to process information to present to the Commission, when I learned of, and took, your course. Since then, dozens of the members of my staff have taken your course and we have incorporated many of your principles into our "State of the Energy Markets" reports and other documents developed to explain energy market conditions to the public and to policy-makers. To get a quick look, here is a link to some post-hurricane information: The first four boxes and the last chart were from our team. I would like to mail you copies of the State of the Markets reports. You were a major influence and they have been extremely well-received. Where may I send them? Thanks

-- Bill Hederman (email)

Timemetric is a new online tool that helps user to understand and analyze statistic time series.

You maybe find it. It uses the famous Tufte's sparkline in the cover.

-- Alvaro Valino (email)

The Tableau Economique is wonderful. Designing a worksheet with such clarity must have required many person-years of work; it's always hard to design something easy to use.

There are several graphic depictions of the current financial crisis at

ranging from the wildly chartoonish to the well thought out.


-- Jose C Silva (email)

What/what not to do when visually displaying trade-offs?

Often scientists, philosophers, theorists and the rest of us are interested in talking about competing choices, where more of one choice means increasingly less of another choice (sort of the inverse of price/quantity curves and economies of scale). I am particularly interested in three-way trade offs in which two qualities are quite possible, but only at the expense of a third. For example, it is often said that as a customer/consumer one can have at most two of cheap, fast or quality. One may get something cheap and fast, but the craftsmanship will be poor; one may get something cheap and high-quality, but will likely have to search through the bargain bins, or for someone to sucker for a long time before landing that steal; or one can pay through the nose to get high-quality service right now. Of course, one may be stuck with only one or even none of those characteristics.

These trade-offs are not limited to financial or economic ideas, either. For example, in quantitative mathematical models of real phenomena, one must typically sacrifice precision, generality, or realism. (see, for example, Awerbuch, T., Kiszewski, A. E., and Levins, R. (2002). "Surprise, nonlinearity and complex behavior" In Environmental change, climate and health: issues and research methods, Martens, P. & McMichael A. J., Eds. pages 197–219. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.)

Any thoughts, ideas or experience on visual representations of this kind of trade-off concept?


-- Alexis (email)

Language of finance

Daniel Gross on Bubblespeak:

-- Edward Tufte

Alexis, in materials science we often wish to display the state of a mix of three components at a fixed temperature and pressure. Because three components add up exactly 100% by definition, an increase in one component is necessarily a decrease in one or both of the others. So there are two degrees of freedom.

This can be shown in two dimensions using a cartesian diagram which has a limit consisting of a diagonal straight line from 100% of one component to 100% of one of the other two. By elimination, we know the percentage of the third component. But this is a bit lacking in symmetry, so what we normally do instead is slope the right angled triangle so that it becomes an equilateral triangle, and mark the former diagonal with labels to form a third axis. We call this triangle a ternary diagram, and you can find several examples on the web.

If the three components have a constant product instead of a constant sum, you can use this diagram after taking the logarithms.

-- Derek Cotter (email)

Alexis, look up "ternary diagram". It assumes a constant sum, but constant product functions with three components can also be displayed, by taking logarithms.

-- Derek Cotter (email)