Another FT Whiff on a Numbers Story

Two days ago I criticized the Financial Times for a weak story the paper saw fit to plop on page one. My main beef was that it reported on a survey on Wall Street reputations but never quantified any of its assertions—it gave us not a single number.

Today, there’s another problematic story. While it’s mercifully not on page one, it is on the front of the paper’s Companies & Markets section.

Headlined “US prime borrowers slip behind with payments as housing slump goes on,” the piece at least has some numbers. It reports that the dollar amount of such delinquencies jumped 14 percent from March to June.

Interesting so far. But when you’re doing a data-driven story, you don’t just throw out one number and call it good. You’d think the FT, of all publications, would know that.

For instance, is 14 percent a lot or a little? You can’t tell that if you read this story and haven’t previously immersed yourself in housing statistics.

A critical piece of information here, then, is 14 percent from what to what? The FT doesn’t give us this. We know it’s a big problem, but how big a problem is it exactly? We’re not told.

But also, a reader should want to know (and a journalist should want to tell) whether that 14 percent increase from March to June is higher or lower than that of the previous four-month stretch, November to February, and —even better, because of possible seasonality—how it compares to the numbers from March to June of last year and of two years ago. In other words, what’s the trendline?

None of that’s here, either. Without this context, we’re lost and the publication hasn’t done its job.

That’s too bad, because the question of the health of the prime mortgage borrower, who makes up the vast majority of the total market, is a critical story with obviously huge implications for the direction of the housing market, the banking system, and the overall economy.

The FT does the exact same thing in this story with Alt-A delinquency amounts, which rose a bit, and the subprime numbers, which actually fell slightly.

This just doesn’t cut it.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.