Online Calculator for SEC Filings: A Killer App for CFOs?

Tool grabs grand prize as &doublequot;most inventive and useful&doublequot; application in national XBRL contest.
David RosenbaumFebruary 29, 2012

Today at Baruch College of the City University in New York City, XBRL US, a nonprofit consortium for extensible business reporting language standards, awarded Calcbench, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based, two-person start-up, its $20,000 grand prize for the “most inventive and useful application” using XBRL-formatted data from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s EDGAR database. The app in question? A handy-dandy calculator.

The Calcbench application, which went live in December 2011 and has gone through several iterations since then, achieving its current level of functionality in late January, was designed and programmed by company founders Pranav Ghai and Alex Rapp. It is a browser-based, configurable calculator that enables users to click on any number in an XBRL-tagged SEC filing and automatically calculate changes in any category — cash and cash equivalents, inventory, accounts payable, whatever — over quarters or years, and also to compare those results between companies.

“You can bring up a company and string together its most recent four years; you can string together as many quarters you want, and now you don’t have to pay Thomson-Reuters,” says Rapp.

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Calcbench’s website is free and open to the public. Rapp says he hopes Calcbench, intended primarily as a tool for “small but sophisticated investors,” will move up the value chain to larger investors, and claims the tool could give CFOs (who have generally regarded XBRL as a compliance-driven investment without a return) a clearer view of how their filings will look to the investor community, as well as enabling them to more easily benchmark suppliers or partners. He says Calcbench will likely move to a “freemium” model in which it will remain free to casual users but a fee would kick in at an as-yet-to-be-determined use threshold.

In its press release, XBRL US lauded Calcbench’s easy “user interface” and the “analytics provided which allow users to perform multi-company comparisons annually and quarter to quarter.” At the press conference, Paul Ratnaraj, director of Wharton Research Data Services, said he was enthusiastic about both the tool and XBRL because they make financial data more broadly accessible and therefore more quickly quantifiable. “We want researchers to spend less time accessing data and more time analyzing it,” he said.

Rapp and Ghai met as undergraduates at Bates College, and the two were speaking on the phone last night when the call came in from XBRL US informing them they had won. As for the $20,000 prize, Rapp says it would help pay the company’s incorporation bill. He also thinks he’ll “probably buy a computer.” If anything is left over, he says, “there are general corporate purposes. Isn’t that what they say?”

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