ChartFacts: 3.6 Million Data Sets at Your Fingertips

by: SA Editors

This article is part of a regular series in which we interview our App Providers - the folks that develop the amazing stock-market Apps on Seeking Alpha's new App Platform.

Please use the comment stream below to share your own experiences with the featured App. And feel free to suggest to the developers any improvements or changes you'd like to see (or write a review!).

This week's interview is with Michael Linnert of ChartFacts - whose (completely free) App allows users to chart and manipulate 3.6 million data sets - "charting macroeconomic trends, company financials, stocks, commodities and more."

Editor's note: Michael feels that great charts are for sharing, and he'll be raffling off an iPad to help you get started.

There are two ways to enter:

  1. Publish an article on Seeking Alpha with a chart from ChartFacts. The more articles you publish, the more chances you'll get. Submit your published articles by emailing a link to ipad@chartfacts.com.
  2. Find or create a chart using the Chartfacts Tool and tell Michael why you like it. Email the chart and your thoughts to ipad@chartfacts.com.

Note: Limit 2 non-article entries per person. Articles & thoughts must be submitted by Dec. 9 at 11:59 p.m. ET to be eligible. Please send one email per link.

And now, the interview:

3.6 million data sets - wow, that's a lot of data.

Our vision at ChartFacts is to aggregate data from around the web to enable users to discover, compare, and share charts of almost anything. We believe data is the key to building informed, investable opinions. We provide a powerful charting application to visualize and compare data sets. Using ChartFacts, an investor can easily demonstrate on one chart that a technology company’s stock price has dramatically outperformed its revenue and net income growth. Alternatively, a user might be interested in comparing gold prices to expected inflation, or treasury rates to the ratio of US debt / GDP. We have been amazed at some of the trends and correlations that users have discovered manipulating the data in our database.

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Where do you get your data from? Do you have algorithmic tools that allow you to detect anomalies in data sets; in other words, how can I know that the data I'm looking at is accurate?

Our data comes from many different sources and we are looking to add more all the time. Because data is only as good as the source, we make our sources clear to users. Almost all of the charts built at our site list the source(s) in the legend on the lower left. If people have suggestions for sources with valuable data, we love to hear about them.

We try to use data sources that we believe to be accurate. We do, however, add an additional layer of quality by employing some of our own data integrity tests on incoming data. When we find potential errors, we are quick to report to the source both what we found and how we found it. Our data providers are extremely interested in improving their products and usually provide updates within 24 hours or less.

Is it possible to download the raw data from a chart you're looking at?

At the current time, we do not allow a user to download the raw data from our database. A user can, however, easily see the data values at any given point in a chart by simply mousing over them.

Importantly, we have made it very easy to download, share, and publish any chart built at our site using our data. To do this, a user simply highlights the “Share” button in the menu bar above the title of a chart they have made (or found) at the site. Charts can be saved to a PC, emailed to friends, included in an article, or posted to Facebook or Twitter. To see examples of charts included in articles at Seeking Alpha, check out our Instablog.

Of the 3.6 million data sets available, how many of them are relevant to stock market investors? (I don't suppose you can draw a line between average MLB runs per game and the markets?!)

The vast majority of our data sets are directly relevant to investors. Many of them, including our detailed U.S. economic data, are difficult, if not impossible, to find in useful formats by individual investors in other places. We get a lot of feedback from users that they are overwhelmed at the depth and breadth of our database. In addition to a host of company-level data (stock prices, financial performance, some valuation metrics) we also maintain detailed data about everything from unemployment to retail sales to housing to federal government financial data and more. Many find that it completely replaces offerings they had previously been paying thousands of dollars for.

The ability to compare data with our charting application dramatically increases the value of the database. It allows users to discover and demonstrate correlations in data performance over time. We believe we are the first site to allow users to compare economic data, stock market data, and company financial performance on the same chart.

Give us a few examples of charts you've stumbled upon by accident that have helped you understand a stock, industry or sector in a different light.

There are many charts that have proven incredibly interesting to us as we have built and shared them internally. Some are simple charts that we read about in the headlines all the time. Below is a chart of new home sales in the US. While this number is in the headlines each month, it is typically quoted simply as a percent change. A closer look at the absolute data going back to Jan 1963, however, demonstrates better the true devastation that has taken place in this market. We are still down 78% from the peak in Jul 2005 and currently running at about 50% of where we were for most of the 1960s. A separate chart of US population would show that there were about one third fewer people in this country in the 1960s. This chart led to more research and, ultimately, to the following article: Time to Short the Homebuilders

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Another set of charts we found surprising were ones that we stumbled upon during an argument about the outlook for U.S. Treasury rates. We were focused on the impact of increasing U.S. Debt/GDP ratios on rates. The chart below captures the relationship of these two things over the last sixty years. Needless to say, we were surprised. That led to another article exploring other factors impacting U.S. Treasuries:Why Shorting Treasuries Isn't a Good Idea

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Charts are very good at telling a visual story of things that have already occurred. Obviously, as an investor, I want to use Chartfacts to help me make predictions about how certain scenarios will play out into the future. Is Chartfacts useful as a predictive tool?

We firmly agree with the statement: “What’s past is prologue” (William Shakespeare in The Tempest). A detailed knowledge of the past is integral to forming an opinion for the future. One of our favorite charts on this point is an economic one. As above, it is one we stumbled upon in the course of a disagreement at the office. It compares U.S. Government receipts and expenditures as a percent of GDP over the last 60 years. It also includes the next 10 years as projected in Obama’s Presidential Budget. While there are many interesting things about this chart, in thinking about the future, one particularly amazing thing jumped out at us: in spite of all the different economic cycles and tax regimes over this time frame, government receipts rarely move outside of the 17-20% range. We would love to see data like this inserted into the debate about raising or lowering tax rates going forward. It certainly helps set context. Here is an article with more analysis on the point: American Debt: The Outlook from Obama

Do you have plans for a premium app? If so, how would it differ from your free tool - even more data sets?

We have many ideas for a premium app, but at this point we are firmly focused on building a compelling free application for the Seeking Alpha community. In the near-term we are adding functionality, collecting feedback, and building out the database.

What is your favorite Chartfacts chart - the one that you've come to love among all the rest?

We are always changing our favorite charts as we see new ones that users make. Our current favorite compares Corporate Profits After Tax, as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (U.S. Dept. of Commerce), to the S&P 500. While markets are still significantly off their peak levels, corporate profits have rebounded and are already exceeding nominal highs set at the end of 2006. It also puts some perspective on the difference between the bubble in 2000 and now:

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Thanks Michael!

Have any thoughts, suggestions, or comments for Michael and his team? Tell them, and other SA readers, what you think in the comment stream.