Risk & Compliance

The Good and Bad About XBRL’s Future

The setup costs for XBRL is relatively low, but without the proper user tools, regulatory filings can turn into "gibberish."
Sarah JohnsonOctober 4, 2006

The Securities and Exchange Commission will consider whether to require companies to use the XBRL programming language for their financial statements “sooner rather than later,” said SEC Chairman Christopher Cox during Tuesday’s second interactive data roundtable. XBRL is an Internet-language method of tagging financial data.

Last week, Cox said that making XBRL mandatory would be “premature,” considering that the program’s taxonomy is incomplete. But on Tuesday, one week after the SEC announced it will spend $5.5 million to complete the XBRL taxonomy—the data-labeling information needed to run the language—Cox said the SEC will consider how other countries, including China, have mandated XBRL’s use. He added that once the interactive system is fully functional, companies will have no barriers for adopting XBRL.

On September 29, the SEC announced a $54 million investment to update its 20-year-old EDGAR database of corporate regulatory filings and turn it into an interactive database that uses XBRL. The SEC has promoted the program as a perk for investors, who would be able to easily compare several companies’ financial data on their desktops rather than retyping or printing out forms, but it only works if all those companies being compared have used XBRL to tag their data.

During Tuesday’s roundtable, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi praised the benefits of XBRL and said the cost of initiating its use was minor. As a participant in the SEC’s XBRL pilot program, Pepsi filed four regulatory forms, spending $5,000 in up-front costs for its first filing, which including outsourcing XBRL coding of its financials. For the second filing, the cost and labor hours involved “dropped dramatically,” the former CFO said. “All in all, the implementation of XBRL has been relatively painless and inexpensive.”

Similarly, Cox has cited United Technologies as one example of a company that switched to XBRL for a relatively small cost. According to Cox, the $43 billion (in sales) conglomerate spent $40,000 to covert its financial reporting system to an XBRL system, and “they expect to recoup that [expense],” he added during a press conference last Monday.

While XBRL backers praise its low cost, they also need to make an effort to educate investors and users, Nooyi said. Soon after Pepsi filed its quarterly statement using XBRL, an analyst who was unfamiliar with XBRL, called to complain, saying the filing was “gibberish,” Nooyi said. Investors and analysts need the tools to be able to view the new type of statements, and the taxonomy needs to be improved so that companies can file supplemental data—such as footnotes, which Pepsi has been unable to include in XBRL format during the pilot stage, she said. Companies need to “make looking at financial information easy in every sense: easy to access, easy to use, easy to compare with other companies, and it has to be easy for everyone, not just those with deep pockets that can build analysis tools,” Nooyi added.

As one of 24 participants in the SEC XBRL pilot program that includes, General Electric, Microsoft, Ford, and Pfizer, Pepsi joined the program so its record for accurate accounting and pioneering corporate spirit is recognized, noted Nooyi. “We are fanatics for accurate, timely, transparent, and effective financial reporting,” she said.

Cox has been actively touting the benefits of XBRL and how it will transform the current EDGAR database that houses corporate financial filing. Financial data “is currently trapped inside dense documents,” he said on Tuesday. By using the XBRL programming language, investors and analysts will be armed with real-time, easily digestible information about companies big and small, rather than the EDGAR filings system’s forms which require them to rekey information.

The SEC plans to schedule another interactive data roundtable to hear more from the participants in the XBRL pilot program. During the first roundtable, in June, the participants—who represented companies, mutual funds and other investors, banks, credit-rating agencies, and analysts—suggested that more-widespread use of XBRL would help secure additional analyst coverage for small and midsize companies.

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