A Citigroup presentation on Thursday featured sterling examples of what information designer Edward Tufte calls “chartjunk”: charts that distract from or even conceal the data they are trying to illuminate.
Look at page 6 of the PDF, which is marked 5 on the page of the presentation itself: the bank’s assets have declined by what appears from the chart to be a dramatic amount. The 2007 bar is about 3 centimeters long, while the 2008 bar is roughly 1.8 centimeters long. That’s a 40 percent drop.
But the numbers, used to bolster a presentation to analysts by Citi CFO John Gerspach tell a different story: Citigroup’s assets fell from $2.19 trillion in 2007 to $1.94 trillion in 2008, which is a much-less-impressive 11 percent decline.
Other charts on the page have issues, too. For example, deposits rose about 8 percent from 2008 to 2009, but the 2009 bar is about 80 percent taller than the 2008 bar. The decline in deposits from 2007 is similarly off-scale, which would imply that the chart issues are more of an accident than a deliberate effort to misguide.
Citigroup spokesman Stephen Cohen said the company displayed the numbers.
If these were the worst mistakes Citigroup ever made, taxpayers would be much better off. But clearly, investors could do with a little less chartjunk from the third largest U.S. bank.